It will take some­thing mirac­u­lous to get peo­ple tuned back into Su­per Rugby

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT -

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.

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