Super Rugby Overkill!
The 2015 Super Rugby season is in full swing, three rounds have been played and the excitement of the first couple of weeks is starting to settle down as both spectators and teams start looking at the season that still lies ahead. Many bridges remain to be crossed and much water must flow under those bridges before we will have any idea of who will be contesting the play-off rounds of this competition, and who will progress to the finals.
Already the injury bogey looms. World Rugby Player of The Year for 2015 Brodie Retallick is already sidelined with a shoulder injury. We do not know how serious the injury is, but he had to leave the field in only his second outing of the year. Rocky Elstadt has a broken leg and a couple of ligaments torn too. His season is over.
Robbie Fruen might have been looking for an All Black call-up during 2015, but his Super 15 season is also over with a broken arm.
Teams are being forced to look at the management of their player resources during a particularly heavy season. The upper echelon of players, those whom it is expected will number in their national squads for the mid-year Rugby Championships and the later Rugby World Cup, have to be carefully managed to ensure that they remain mentally fresh and of relatively sound mind and body as their season progresses. (Why do we speak of a “season” when it really a year?)
Even without the complication of managing national players, teams have to carefully plan their strategies and tactics in order to survive the extremely physical and huge mental focus required to complete a season.
Turn your thoughts now to those long-suffering, critically important members of each franchises’ larger team – the spectators. These are the people who support the game – the ones who pitch up at the ground to support their team come fair weather or foul, these are those who cluster around the television sets of the world, setting aside all other activities for 80 or 90 minutes in order to watch their team play. These are the people who will get up in the early hours of the morning or stay up late at night to catch their team playing in some distant part of the world many time zones away.
These are the folk who are the lifeblood of the game. Every advertising dollar or cent spent by the major corporates is targeting these very individuals. No advertiser wants to spend money on something where he gets no mileage for his buck.
Lesser spectator sports such as hockey or swimming, waterpolo or netball bemoan the fact that they do not get their “fair” share of the advertising spend and airtime o television – the truth is that the general public have no interest in watching those sports on television. Yes, there are those who do watch, but they are a small minority of the overall television viewer or subscriber numbers.
Advertisers want as much bang for their buck as they can possibley get. They want as much airtime for “their” team as possible – the more people who see DHL, or Castle, or Fosters, or BNZ emblazoned across the chest of a team of rugby gladiators, the happier the advertising executives. They want those electrical signboards at the side of the field to attract as many eyes as possible.
They want more, more, more, more, and more still.
If I was one of those advertising executives I might just be worrying a little.
Over the last number of years the stadiums of the Super 15 rugby playing world are starting to get emptier and emptier! Each season sees more open seats and hears more echoes from the empty galleries of the rugby stadiums of the Super franchises.
Super Rugby: An expanding problem
5:00 AM Sunday Mar 1, 2015
Plenty of dire predictions have been made before about Super Rugby’s future but this time there is genuine concern among New Zealand’s franchises they have been thrown a hospital pass with next year’s set-up. It’s hard enough as it is – with a glut of much-loved local derbies – for franchises to keep people coming through the turnstiles and sponsorship dollars flowing.
Next year, the battle will be tougher again. Publicly, New Zealand’s teams are resigned to toeing the party line – that the addition of a team from Argentina, Japan and another in South Africa is a stroke of genius. The pom-poms will be out. Don’t be fooled. Don’t buy it. Privately, there is not a franchise in New Zealand that thinks expansion is a good idea. Argentina have been a welcome inclusion in the Rugby Championship. Anyone with an ounce of realism and knowledge of history will know the Pumas have done extraordinarily well to win one game, draw another and be agonisingly close in plenty more.
The thing is, though, for all their honest graft and endeavour, they just aren’t a sexy side. They have zero glamour.
If Samoa were involved, they probably wouldn’t be nearly as competitive but it would be a million times easier getting New Zealanders interested.
Argentina, on the other hand, perhaps because of the language barrier, don’t seem to excite Kiwis.
From a rugby perspective, their set-up – of having the bulk of their squad based in Europe – is working fine. But they don’t agree, and the latest news suggests that, as of 2016, to be eligible for the Pumas, players will have to be based in Argentina and contracted to the Super Rugby team.
The Argentina Rugby Union (UAR) are going to run and fund the Super Rugby team, which will effectively be the Pumas in disguise between February and August and then the Pumas not in disguise the rest of the time.
That’s a massive risk. Many of the Pumas in Europe are paid well and settled. There are reports the UAR posted a surplus of US$17 million last year, which will be a helpful war-chest to lure talent, but still, there is genuine concern that whatever guise the Pumas are in next year, they are going to be outclassed in both tournaments.
The picture isn’t any more encouraging in Japan – or indeed Singapore, where the Japanese team have proposed to play a few games. It’s madness – two home bases thousands of miles apart and a group of cobbled-together rugby nomads to fill the jerseys … won’t work.
And the franchises in New Zealand know it. They have seen the declining trends around attendance.
In 2006, South Africa posted an average Super Rugby crowd of 34,000, Australia 24,000 and New Zealand 22,000.
By 2012, those numbers had dropped across the board – South Africa were down to 28,000, Australia 20,000 and New Zealand 16,000.
These figures most likely would have been worse were it not for the conference system where the New Zealand teams play each other twice.
These fixtures appeal to fans but not the players, who feel the physical and mental intensity is too much to endure eight times a season. So next year, New Zealand teams will play each other less and the difference will be made up with fixtures against foreign sides.
Chiefs chief executive Andrew Flexman says he hasn’t given any detailed thought to 2016 yet, largely because his focus is on an already-challenging 2015 with things like the Cricket World Cup.
“I think it’s fair to say that everyone in New Zealand is looking at ways to improve fan engagement, specifically the quality of the experience provided at games,” he says. “We are doing a lot of work in that area.”
Week one of Super Rugby kicked off with a sea of empty seats. With the Black Caps playing in Christchurch the following day, the Crusaders were resigned to a poor turnout. They got one.
It was the same in Auckland, where the Blues weren’t able to host the Chiefs at Eden Park. They knew it wouldn’t be a great crowd at North Harbour, and they were right.
Cricket could be blamed for all this. Starting Super Rugby a week earlier than usual to accommodate the World Cup could be cited as a factor.
But to look too hard at the periphery would be a triumph for missing the point – the problem is the core product.
TV has been allowed to dictate the playing schedules; jumping from 12 to 15 teams has diluted the quality of the overall playing pool; the format has suffered from not being a true round-robin; the rules remain unfathomable and inconsistently applied; stadiums, with the exception of the Forsyth Barr, don’t have cover; the food in stadiums is mostly crap and expensive and maybe most damaging has been that the biggest name players have been allowed to drift in, drift out and skip the bits they don’t fancy.
Add all that together and that explains the 30 per cent drop in average crowds since 2006.
Franchises can hardly be relishing next year when they are going to have to try to persuade people to buy tickets to watch a random team of unknown Japanese-based players who are probably going to see keeping the score under 50 points as a moral victory.
Blues chief executive Michael Redman says attendance at Blues games over the past decade shows the perceived quality of the opposition and performance of the hosts are critical.
“That is something we have been conscious of and have been trying to change so that, regardless of who we are playing, we still have a core audience.
“That’s a challenge for us and the code. We don’t want the opposition to be a factor and, for us, it is about the connection we have with the grassroots and community game and the quality of the fan engagement.”
Those who made the decision to expand next year can spin it any way they like but the risk of the competition pushing yet more people away is worryingly high.