It will take something miraculous to get people tuned back into Super Rugby
THE reports headlining the declining Super Rugby viewership figures both at the games and on television would not have come as a surprise, but should serve as a wake-up call to the sports’ administrators in the Southern Hemisphere.
The hope is that the confusing format of the competition will start to be accepted by the fans once it becomes more familiar to them and they fully understand how it all fits together. I understand the logic of that reasoning, but while I am not a marketing man, I can’t see how that can apply to fish that have already jumped out of the net.
More and more people are spending their Saturdays doing something other than going to the stadium or watching pro- fessional rugby on their television sets.
It is going to take something miraculous to switch those people back onto something that they are not watching.
There are many different reasons why people are switching off, and it isn’t a coincidence that the worst-hit rugby country when it comes to declining numbers is South Africa, where there are a multitude of forces working on the perceptions of the average rugby fan.
What shouldn’t be surprising in the South African context is that the one stadium that still attracts a reasonable crowd is Newlands. An average of nearly 27 000 people have pitched up for Super Rugby matches this season compared to less than 20 000 for the home games of the local form team, the Lions.
Johannesburg is a cosmopolitan city and on my recent visits to the stadium, the crowd has been slightly more multiracial than it has been in the past. But not enough.
Durban is even worse, and maybe the biggest problem with the Sharks is that they haven’t taken enough notice of the changing demographic of that city.
The support that the Stormers enjoy isn’t down to the marketing genius of the people who administer the game here, neither is it just because the Stormers team tends to be more transformed than other local sides (although that is a factor). Much of it rather revolves around the diversity of the rugby support base in the region.
People go to Newlands for many different reasons, and while the Cape Crusader phenomenon is a controversial one, and obviously any kind of bad behaviour by fans that impacts on the enjoyment of others should be condemned, I don’t think it’s bad for the sport in this region.
Go to a match between the Sharks and Crusaders at Kings Park and experience the flat atmosphere there before you tell me you disagree.
But I’m not sure that the whole transformation or demographic issue has as much of an impact on declining numbers as some people would like to think. Perhaps more central to the decline in interest in Super Rugby is the declining quality that has teamed up with the confusion and boredom to chase fans away.
There is just too much rugby that has to be played. And coupled with the fact that some countries just have too many teams – and that means there aren’t enough good players to give those teams the depth needed in such a long and arduous competition – is the travel factor and attrition rate that impacts on quality.
Let’s look at the scheduling and travel first. The top two teams no longer go straight into a semi-final round, and thus get a bye in the first week of the knockouts. In what has been called the qualifying round, the No 1 team plays the No 8 team a week after the regular season ends.
If the Lions win their last league game against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires next Saturday night, they will probably finish top.
That would mean a playoff game against the Sharks or Bulls just a matter of days after playing in Argentina, which is much more difficult to get back from now than it was when Air Malaysia flew direct to Buenos Aires from Joburg via Cape Town.
So the Lions either won’t be at their optimum for that playoff game, or they will have to send an understrength team to Argentina. Either way, quality suffers, and gone are the days when such a furore was caused by the then Stormers coach choosing an understrength team for a match in Dunedin. These days, it’s a regular necessity because of the demands of the competition.
The impact of players leaving for more appetising foreign currencies becomes worse when you have such a long competition that it requires that you rotate selections.
Last weekend, Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium looked particularly empty when the Southern Kings hosted the Highlanders and it was hard not to wonder what had happened to all those Eastern Cape people we had been told were desperate for top rugby.
The problem, though, was that they weren’t getting topquality rugby, and the public aren’t stupid. Apart from the home team just not being up to Super Rugby standard, the visitors left out all their top players.
It will never happen, but what would work in Super Rugby would be a return to the old system where you have just 12 teams and everyone plays everyone else once in the season. Not only was that a fairer competition, but the fewer teams meant fewer games and more quality. This is definitely an instance where less would be more.