Wests Tigers lock out opposition and casual fans

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Professional sporting clubs in Australia have placed much emphasis in recent years on turning fans into members. It’s not hard to see why. The money from memberships goes directly to the club, rather than to the league, ticket agencies or other parties.

Attendance that is already paid for is locked in; and if it’s cold or wet or the team isn’t doing well, you’re more likely to make the effort to go to the game if you’ve already paid.

There are other benefits to clubs as well. You have a database to sell to sponsors, and are able to invite them individually to club functions.

AFL clubs have long built up strong membership bases. The 16 longer-running clubs all have memberships over 20,000. Gold Coast have over 10,000 as they enter their second season, while new club GWS Giants are building their membership with their first game just a month away.

NRL clubs were slower to get on board the membership drive bandwagon; but have made big gains in recent seasons. Brisbane, St George Illawarra, the Bulldogs and Souths have over 10,000 members; while other clubs are getting close.

But it’s a new tactic to attract members by Wests Tigers that is attracting attention this week, and could backfire on the club.

The new NRL season starts in the first weekend in March. Wests Tigers are drawn to play Cronulla at Leichhardt Oval on the Sunday afternoon in the opening round.

Leichhardt is a small suburban ground, with one small grandstand on the western side and a standing room hill on the eastern side. It’s an old style venue, the type of ground the AFL abandoned during ground rationalisation in the 1980s and 1990s.

A couple of Wests Tigers member friends asked me if I was interested in going to the opening round game. With the AFL not starting until a few weeks later, I was keen. A couple of Cronulla-supporting mates were keen to come as well.

Tickets were due to go on sale on Monday, but were pulled from sale at the last minute. A phone call to the Wests Tigers club revealed the game had been declared for Tigers members only. A one-game membership was available for $65.

The Cronulla mates were told the same thing. No Wests Tigers membership, no entry to this game.

The plan to make Leichardt Oval games for members only was confirmed by Tigers boss Stephen Humphreys in The Sydney Morning Herald (link -http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-league/league-news/tigers-set-to-shut-doors-to-general-public-for-future-leichhardt-fixtures-20120220-1tjre.html).

Cronulla fans “can watch it on Channel Nine or Fox Sports”. Let them eat cake.

No $65 membership, no entry to stand on muddy grass for a home-and-away game. It’s a bit rich. For away fans, no entry without becoming a member of a club they don’t support. It’s a bit rich.

I can’t help thinking this is going to backfire rather spectacularly on the Tigers.

We live in competitive sporting times. There are other clubs, and other sports, that will admit to vastly superior facilities for a lot less than $65 and having your name on a membership database.

Leichhardt only holds 18,000; and I can understand why they would be worried about a sellout. But both ANZ and the Sydney Football Stadium are vacant that day. Why not move the game? Can an NRL club afford to turn people away?

And to send the message out that the Wests Tigers don’t want casual fans or away supporters at their games is a dangerous message indeed. It’s membership or nothing. That’s the message they’re sending.

But what’s going to happen when the current membership base churns? Who will take their place?

Not casual fans. They’ve been turned away, told they’re not welcome.

And to exclude away fans, unless they buy a $65 membership to a club they don’t support, is very poor form indeed.

Encouraging membership is a good thing. But to force it, to exclude anyone not willing or able to commit to the club from even casual attendance, is surely beyond the bounds of what is reasonable.

It sends the wrong message to potential supporters, driving all but the most committed away.

I’m not going. Neither are the Sharks’ fans. We know when we’re not welcome.

Just don’t bother inviting me to a Wests Tigers game again.

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