Where’s the hype for the new Super Rugby season?

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Tom Carter passes wide during a super rugby trial game. AAP Image/Greg Seaton

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Super Rugby has kicked off again for another season. The competition is often billed as the best rugby competition in the world, but unless you’re an ardent fan, or one with more than a passing interest, you’d hardly know it had started.

This underwhelming feeling is certainly the case in New Zealand, and it happens year after year. Amazing, considering it’s the so-called ‘home of rugby’.

Testament to this feeling of being underwhelmed are the poor crowds seen at Wellington and Melbourne, which in my opinion, were a disgrace and should have the administrators running searching for answers.

The Hurricanes crowd in particular was unacceptable. There is no other word for is. Next month, at Newtown Park in Wellington, there will be a bigger, more raucous and more passionate crowd at the McEvedy Shield game.

For those of you who don’t know what the McEvedy Shield is, it’s an annual athletics competition between the top four boys’ schools in Wellington (Rongotai College, St. Pat’s Silverstream, St. Pat’s Kilbirnie, and Wellington College).

Have a look at footage of the competition on Youtube to see what I mean.

There looks to be a serious disconnect between the Hurricanes’ franchise and its fan base, possibly brought about by the continual failure of the team to win any silverware, although Upton Park (capacity 35,000) still sells out each week despite the fact West Ham United have never won the premiership, nor have they won the FA Cup since 1980.

There are countless other examples of clubs in various codes across the world who are not successful, but still retain a passionate following – the New Zealand Warriors are a good example of this.

The Hurricanes’ disconnect has been in place for a number of seasons now, and looks so serious that I don’t think winning any silverware will solve the problem for the franchise.

I don’t know who is to blame for the crowd, but the Hurricanes are seriously lucky there is no NRL club based in the capital to show them what marketing professional sports is all about, if there were, there wouldn’t be anyone turning up to watch the boys in yellow.

In any event, the Hurricanes head honchos will get a lesson in the art and science of professional sports marketing later in the year when the AFL juggernaut arrives on ANZAC Day, with the St. Kilda Saints and Sydney Swans game already watering my eyes with anticipation and excitement.

It’s not as if the Hurricanes don’t have any stars either. Just look at Vito, Conrad Smith, TJ Perenara, the up and coming Brad Shields, Savea and Cory Jane. All of these are highly marketable men, modern day sporting heroes.

A good number of them are also hallowed All Blacks.

I think back too, to the Blues and Hurricanes games of old, whether at Eden Park or the Stadium, and always, a crowd of 35,000 was there on hand to watch one of the great rivalries in New Zealand sport, second only in terms of history and passion perhaps to Auckland and Canterbury fixtures (aka Blues vs Crusaders).

I think about the premier traditional clashes in other sports, such as Collingwood and Carlton, or Rangers and Celtic, or Wigan and St. Helens.

Would any of these fixtures be anything other than sold out, year after year? Of course not. So why should Super Rugby settle for anything less, especially if it’s supposed to be ‘the world’s best rugby competition’?

Although I don’t know the exact attendance figure, there looked to be about 5,000 to 10,000 people at the Hurricanes game.

In a stadium built for 36,000, and in a game that has its roots in a fierce rivalry datng back to the 1880s, the rows upon rows and sections upon sections of empty seats looked disheartening.

To have so many empty seats was also unbecoming of the title of ‘world’s best rugby competition’. It took the hype out of the season’s commencement.

Hang on a minute… Did I say the word ‘hype’. What hype?

Oh, that’s right! There is no hype at the start of a Super Rugby season.

There never has been, and judging by the last 16 years since the tournament’s inception, it looks like there never will be.

Any deployment by SANZAR of basic marketing techniques to promote the competition, if they are deploying any techniques at all, is clearly not working. Because as of the morning of 22 February 2013, the day of the Hurricanes and Blues match, no one at my workplace actually knew Super Rugby was starting.

This unacceptable state of affairs will always be the case as long as the ultra-conservative, male, middle-to-upper-class echelon, who abhor any form of aggressive commercialism in rugby continues to run the game.

These are the type of blokes who would have difficulty identifying with their teenage children, let alone with the predominantly working class sports supporting public.

There was a season launch in Auckland for the New Zealand teams, and one in Melbourne for the Australians. The first time I heard about the New Zealand one was on the six o’clock news the same day it happened, two hours after it finished, and I consider myself to have much more than a passing interest in the sport.

In this context though, the term ‘launch’ is just a flash word for a half-day photo session with captains, coaches and players.

It’s also the time we get the annual press statement from Greg Peters, the SANZAR CEO detailing the organisation’s aspirations to expand into fresh, lucrative markets, with references to North America and Asia often thrown up for discussion.

It happens every year.

If Super Rugby is going to be any kind of success in America, the home and holy grail of professional sports and sporting over-hype, then it seriously needs to get it’s act together in the marketing department.

In fact, Super Rugby seriously needs to get its act together in this department just to maintain credibility in the Australasian market.

Everyone knows the real television ratings and crowd numbers in Super Rugby are delivered by the South African segment.

The fact is, without this powerhouse South African arm, Super Rugby would rank embarrassingly low in the scheme of things in terms of Australasian sports.

It might be king in New Zealand, but that’s only because the NRL is re-building.

You get the feeling something big is going to happen in New Zealand soon, with the NRL. Maybe they smell blood.

The word complacency springs to mind when I think of rugby union nowadays. Besides, any prestige gained from the mantle of being the most popular in New Zealand’s is completely offset by the lack of interest and care for the competition in Australia.

One way to change this is for the administrators to at least try and make an effort to create anticipation, hype and interest at the start of the season, so that any person, whether he or she be a casual observer of the game or someone more serious about it, is under no illusions that Super Rugby is about to start.

Contrast this with the approach of the brilliant AFL and NRL.

In the AFL you have the draft and pre-season NAB Cup. The NRL has the All Stars Game, the World Club Challenge, the Charity Shield, the Foundation Cup, and pre-season fixtures.

The latter are increasingly being televised in their own right and drawing crowds and television viewers, as can be seen in the Warriors and Broncos match in Dunedin last night. It was shown live on television, and it’s just a pre-season match. A good crowd of nearly 17,000 showed up to watch.

The AFL and NRL are also masters at using the media and headlines to arouse interest. That’s fair dinkum, because that is what professional sports is about.

The NRL has also run a series of excellent TV ads in New Zealand promoting club memberships. The Warriors have advertised extensively on the New Zealand Herald web site for weeks. Their ads are always popping up on Facebook too, as well as on radio.

There will also be serious promotion both on a national and local scale by the NRL and its partners in the build up to Round One.

All this means is that by the start of both the NRL and AFL competitions, excitement is at fever pitch, a crescendo of anticipation has been created and is about to explode, and the vast majority of seats to most fixtures will be sold, while millions more will watch on TV.

There is the odd shining example in rugby. For example, it’s no surprise the Reds got 35,000 to their grudge match with the Warratahs, despite their limp opening game against the Brumbies.

This is because the Reds are one of the few, if not the only, Super Rugby outfits that actually knows how to market their team and, dare I say it, ‘hype’ them up.

They are the only ones who make the effort and because of this they get 35,000 to every game. They think and act like an NRL club. They agitate and never take anything for granted.

They owe a lot to Jim Carmichael, who is to me, the greatest rugby administrator in the professional era. He understands this game we’re in, and the people his team needs to connect with in order to deliver 35,000 per game, like the Hurricanes used to.

There is an aversion in rugby union circles to ‘marketing hype’, which I put down to the ultra-conservative, but out-dated, nature of its administrators.

But for me, this lack of hype shows a lack of care for the fans. It’s a refusal to get excited about the game, yet they expect, nay demand, ordinary blokes like me get excited about it.

It’s like paying top dollar to go to a fancy restaurant only to have the waiter throw down a plate of cold steak and uncooked chips while saying ‘eat what you’re given, and to hell with you if you don’t like it.’

The rugby administrators could at least show some care and concern by packaging and promoting Super Rugby more carefully and professionally, like the AFL and NRL and any other half decent sports competitions around the world.

If the administrators cared, then we would too. Our enthusiasm (as fans) is a direct reflection of their enthusiasm which is expressed on a mass market scale through hype.

And the sooner rugby administrators understand that basic cornerstone of professional sports, the better.

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