‘Su­per Rugby needs a re­vamp’

With too many teams and venues in the mix, in­ter­est in the tour­na­ment is fad­ing fast

CityPress - - Sport - SIMNIKIWE XA­BAN­ISA sports@city­press.co.za

Su­per Rugby’s com­ing-of-age ex­per­i­ment – the tour­na­ment was in its 21st sea­son last year – ap­pears to have come at a huge cost.

Grow­ing the num­ber of teams from 15 to 18, adding three more des­ti­na­tions – Ar­gentina, Ja­pan and Sin­ga­pore – and in­tro­duc­ing a for­mat that still needs ex­plain­ing a year later were sup­posed to be rugby ad­min­is­tra­tors’ ways of spread­ing the south­ern hemi­sphere rugby gospel.

But TV rat­ings and sta­dium at­ten­dance – ac­cord­ing to Repu­com ex­ec­u­tive chair­per­son Kelvin Watt – went down dra­mat­i­cally last sea­son, thanks in no small part to a bloated and un­gainly com­pe­ti­tion played on four con­ti­nents.

“Where else have you seen a com­pe­ti­tion where it is run in so many dif­fer­ent coun­tries; where you wake up at 4am to watch the first game and are still watch­ing the last game at 10pm?” he asked. “The Su­per Rugby for­mat is con­fus­ing, in­con­sis­tent and has too many teams.

“In busi­ness, you shouldn’t make it hard for con­sumers to con­sume your prod­uct – Su­per Rugby makes it in­cred­i­bly hard.”

Al­though he wouldn’t re­veal the num­bers him­self, they paint a damn­ing pic­ture of a tour­na­ment that, af­ter steadily los­ing its ap­peal with each in­crease in par­tic­i­pat­ing teams, saw its broad­cast fig­ures plum­met last year. Af­ter the first five rounds of the cur­rent for­mat, the num­bers were down 47% year on year be­fore ar­rest­ing them­selves at 36% across the board for the whole tour­na­ment.

Watt said Aus­tralia’s fig­ures were the worst and New Zealand’s were “poor”.

In­ci­den­tally, lo­cal view­er­ship fig­ures were not as bad – the drop hov­ered be­tween 15% and 20%. While not as dras­tic, sta­dium at­ten­dance fig­ures have hurt the fran­chises in the form of sea­son ticket sales.

A prom­i­nent South African Su­per Rugby fran­chise lost as much as 10 000 sea­son ticket sales in the three years from 2013 to last year.

Nev­er­the­less, Watt says that, de­spite the fact that the same for­mat is at play this year, the prob­lems are not in­sur­mount­able.

“It’s bleak, but it’s fix­able,” he said. “What’s be­com­ing clear is that the in­ter­est in rugby is still high, but the way the prod­uct is pack­aged is not work­ing. The prod­uct just needs to be pack­aged right, like mov­ing some Su­per Rugby games to Sun­day af­ter­noons.”

That said, the tour­na­ment is headed for yet an­other year where it will be us­ing the same dis­as­trous for­mat as last year.

Mind­ful of this, Su­per Rugby or­gan­is­ing body San­zaar has made the right noises about re­jig­ging the com­pe­ti­tion by los­ing two teams, which have pop­u­larly been con­strued to mean the peren­ni­ally un­der­per­form­ing South­ern Kings (South Africa) and Aus­tralia’s Western Force will be rel­e­gated next year.

But Watt thinks the pow­ers that be need to do even more: “They’ve got a year in which to bite the bul­let, but then they must go back to some­thing ap­proach­ing the old for­mat. The Su­per 12 was where the num­bers peaked be­cause, back then, we had strength ver­sus strength.

“They have to go back to some­thing like 12 teams, or 14 at most, be­cause 16 just won’t cut it. Then again, they have an obli­ga­tion to Ar­gentina and Ja­pan...”

Watt said the only thing that could shift the tour­na­ment’s fortunes in South Africa would be a storm­ing run to vic­tory not dis­sim­i­lar to the Bulls’ in 2007, as a mere place in the fi­nal – like the Lions last year – just wouldn’t cut it.

“The good news is that the SA Rugby man­age­ment un­der­stands that and is try­ing to do some­thing about it,” he said. “They just need to make good busi­ness de­ci­sions. Now, they are mak­ing what I call fan-cen­tric de­ci­sions, as op­posed to rugby-cen­tric de­ci­sions.

“They think they’re mak­ing good rugby de­ci­sions by in­tro­duc­ing more teams, more play­ers and play­ing the game across more coun­tries. But they need eye­balls and money from peo­ple who have so many other things com­pet­ing for their at­ten­tion.”

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