This week I wrote an article questioning the South African Rugby Union’s (SARU) commitment to marketing the game as a means to retain some of our best players. The main culprit it appears are unions who are centralized and based in big cities who dont show enough for its wider rural feeder districts when it comes to marketing and exposing the game.
Now its time to explore some solutions. Being from a small town I will try to offer one solution that I believe can make a huge difference to stadium attendance figures and one that will once more establish rugby’s heartland not in the cities but in the rural community where the sport is still a way of life – not a mere form of entertainment.
To illustrate this particular solution I will use the Cheetahs rugby franchise as the host union and my town of Bethlehem as the target that stands to benefit from this solution. The suggestion should however be applicable to all towns of relative size in relative proximity to the host union.
Bloemfontein stadium will in 2014 host roughly 6 Super Rugby matches and the same amount of Curie Cup games. They will host around 5 Vodacom Cup Games and 12 age group (under 19/21) matches. The University of the Freestate will host a further 4 or so Varsity Cup games.
In other words, the average rugby fan in Bloemfontein will get the opportunity to see around 32 games featuring the best players in the region at any given age group. Bethlehem, a Cheetahs rugby supporters stronghold – based a mere 2.5 hours away on a beautifully renovated road, will in contrast not host a single game. So too Kroonstad and Parys, not to mention Wepener and Aliwal North.
Now I understand that the Freestate stadium is an expensive beast to maintain and the costs to forfeit some of these games to other towns will have to be covered.
My suggestion thus is to have small towns set up bid committees and actively bid 2 or 3 years in advance for hosting packages which they secure based on meeting certain basic hosting criteria. Big committees can easily be set up among the lively and active Rotary Clubs and Round Tables and other citizens organisations with strong management skills.
Bethlehem, with a renovated Goble Park stadium now managed by Premier League Soccer team Freestate stars – can for example bid to host a Super Rugby game in 2015, and as part of the ‘package’ get one Curie Cup game, one Vodacom Cup game, two age group games and a Varsity Cup game thrown into the mix with matches stretching over a 2 season period.
The basic tenet of this solution is two fold: Firstly you get to expose your product to a wider audience and in the process win hearts and minds for your brand. Secondly the host union covers all its costs as the incentive is now on the bid committee to guarantee the asking price set by the host union to host these game packages.
If Bloemfontein’s small population attended a game against the Chiefs this Saturday and the Cheetahs lost, the chances are that the next game will only attract a small crowd. However if the next match, no matter who the opponent, is a game in the platteland 2 years in the planning – there will be huge excitement around not only the game but the players and everything the union represents. While the smaller town might only host 8000 people at full capacity – the atmosphere will be electric and very intimidating to any opponent. Super Rugby will be something that happens in the real world, not just on dads TV screen. Kids will have their faces painted and get time off school – much like when a big test or a World Cup game is hosted in a city.
I urge SARU and all the rugby unions to re-visit your approach to live rugby. People in cities are already spoiled for choice when it comes to entertainment and a common refrain is that ‘there is too much rugby’, while in the platteland there is NO rugby.
How kids perceive the game is important
My passion for the game started on a cold night in Bethlehem many years ago when Eastern Freestate advanced to the semi-finals of the Lion Cup where they faced the mighty Western Province in Bethlehem. We lost a close game by a few points but I still remember it as one of the best days of my life. Hell my town was alive and as a kid the whole experience was just awesome. I mean WP was in town!
2 years later I witnessed a young Jannie De Beer play for a Freestate development team and all the old men told me to watch him closely as he will be a Springbok one day. As a ball boy it was my privelege to run him sand for his goal kicks.
I became obsessed with the game and insisted my dad drives me to games in Bloemfontein whenever he had the time or the money. I read recently in an interview with Jannie Du Plessis that as a kid growing up in Bethlehem him and Bismarcks only dream was to play with “die koring aar op die hart” – in reference to the Eastern Freestate logo.
These memories are special, yet today they are the source of my anger against the way rugby is run in our country. An entire generation of kids in my town now has never experienced first class rugby, and things don’t look to change any time soon. Like Ben 10 and Phineas and Ferb, rugby players now are just figures on a TV screen,and no small town kid is going to ask his dad to drive to Bloemfontein to watch a rugby game today.
And so we’ve come full circle with empty stadiums.