About a week or so ago, a curious article was published in Business Insider Australia and in email form it made the rounds of the rugby world.
The thrust of the article was in this pointed heading: ‘Soccer roars, rugby is disappearing: Here’s how many Australians are playing each sport‘.
I received a copy of the article, for instance, from someone with an interest in rugby politics who used it to make a point against the ARU board and its chief executive Bill Pulver.
The article made this startling claim: “Rugby union is in danger of dying out in Australia. Participation in the sport has been collapsing – thousands of players reportedly left clubs last year – but new research now puts the number of active players at 55,000, making it the 26th most popular sport in the country, far behind activities widely considered much more marginal including lawn bowls, darts, and ten pin bowling.
“Rugby participation has fallen an enormous 63 per cent from 148,000 in 2001, according to research firm Roy Morgan …
“The company’s research confirms soccer as the nation’s No.1 participation sports, with 623,000 Australians regularly playing the beautiful game …
“Despite its TV deals, significant marketing support and high profile players, rugby union has never been a leading sport in Australia. The professional game is in turmoil at the moment, with reports that one of the country’s Super Rugby side, most likely the Western Force, the ACT Brumbies or the Melbourne Rebels – will need to be axed. The Super Rugby competition has become complex and spread too thin, disappointing fans and seeing crowd attendance levels falling.”
There were a couple of aspects of the research and its write-up that struck me as interesting and disturbing.
Why was the comparison between soccer and rugby highlighted when the netball participation numbers apparently fell (admittedly not the same extent as rugby apparently did) by 24 per cent and rugby league numbers by 27 per cent?
Why didn’t the lead not highlight the apparently staggering increase (far more in percentage terms than soccer) in the participation numbers of rowing, at 62 per cent?
Why was soccer referred to as “the beautiful game” in an article about increases and decreases in regular participation in a specific sport? Where were the references to rugby league’s “greatest game of all” and rugby’s “the game they play in heaven”?
Why did the article try to make the point that “rugby union has never been a leading sport in Australia,” an assertion that is plainly wrong?
Finally, why did the ARU take a number of days before shooting down the Roy Morgan damaging statistics (to rugby) in the flames of actual facts? And when the ARU’s response was finally made, why was it so anodyne and cringing? Why wasn’t aim taken at the damage done to rugby in Australia by misleading statistics?
The duty of the ARU is to promote the interests of rugby, in every aspect of the game and its coverage.
This means they must come down hard when the credibility of the game is harmed. And this means, in turn, that the damaging Roy Morgan company and its statistics needed to face unfriendly fire from the ARU as soon as the statistics were published.
With this in mind, I waited and waited for a response from the ARU. For day after day all that came out of the ARU was the sound of silence.
Finally, a response came from the media.
The Roar’s Brett McKay (28 March 2017) wrote a hard-hitting reply that nailed home with facts the salient point that ‘Roy Morgan’s rugby participation numbers are fake news.’
McKay provided these telling numbers: “The ARU’s figures for 2016 are due in the next few weeks, but they reported a total of 267,463 regular participants in 2015, with more than 700,000 Australians having ‘rugby experiences’ last year.”
Readers of The Roar, as I have found to my cost from time to time, are remarkably well informed and totally passionate on sports matters.
McKay’s hard-hitting article was unsurprisingly bolstered by a Roarer going under the name of P.tah with this comment: “Here is Roy Morgan’s survey from 2015 saying that there are 113,000 rugby players aged 14 and above. Slightly different inclusion criteria, but what’s the number Roy?”
And rugby7 made this telling comment: “BILL PULVER. WHERE ARE YOU? If you can’t do the job the ARU pays you to do, find someone positive to give encouraging facts about our great (Olympic-medalling) sport.”
On the same day as the McKay article in The Roar, Georgina Robinson in the Sydney Morning Herald destroyed the credibility of what she called “a curious piece of research” that “bounced from inbox to inbox in rugby circles” with more facts:
“Pollsters Roy Morgan published research showing a 63 per cent drop in rugby participation in 15 years since 2001, down from 148,000 participants to 55,000 putting it in the company of ballroom dancing, archery and squash for popularity.
“Never mind the phone survey used a sample size of 14,000 and was at odds with Australian Sports Commission data released late last year reporting a participation figure close to triple that. The Australian Rugby Union will claim 255,000 participants in its forthcoming annual report. On club XVs alone – the patch legitimately under siege from Australians’ changing attitudes to club sport – participation sits about at 85,000.”
Despite these strong rebuttals from the media, there was a continuing official silence of the ARU lambs.
By keeping silent, the ARU gave the impression to people in rugby – and in other sports – that there was some truth in the statistics.
Surely, the task of the ARU is to defend the integrity of the rugby game from attacks. It should not be left to the rugby media to do this job for it.
So on the day the Brett McKay and Georgina Robinson articles appeared, I sent an email to the ARU’s general manager of corporate affairs, Michael Earsman:
1. Why hasn’t the ARU replied to the Morgan poll “fake news” about rugby participation in Australia in a public way?
2. Will the ARU make a statement on this matter, and when?
3. How does the ARU justify its current policy of silence on this matter and all the other rugby issues facing the code in Australia?
4. Has the ARU considered improving the transparency of its relationship with stakeholders like the rugby public and the media?”
That email was sent out at 11.08 am last Tuesday.
At 4.07pm, some five hours later, the ARU – finally – sent out a media release on the matter: “ARU rejects Roy Morgan findings on Rugby Participation.”
I am not claiming that my intervention by itself provoked the ARU into making a public rejection of the Roy Morgan findings. Brett McKay’s article in The Roar should have been enough to provoke any administration, even one as slow to defend the interests of rugby as the ARU.
But I reckon the tough stance I presented to the ARU, that the rugby world wanted and needed a robust and official response to Roy Morgan, must have had some effect in getting its clanking machinery into spluttering action.
The release provided this information: “In figures set to be published in the ARU’s 2016 Annual Report, last year 271,528 participants were involved in more than five game or structured sessions (in competition and non-competition programs), reflecting an increase of 1.5% or 4,065 new participants year-on-year. There was, however, a marginal 0.8 decline in Club XVs participation in 2016 (following on from a 7.6 per cent decline from Club XVs from 2014 to 2015) …
“A significant portion of this participation growth came in the key Under 6 to Under 11 age group due to the strong success of the Game On program. As has been revealed, the Roy Morgan research was conducted only with persons over the age of 14 …”
The release ended with this cringeworthy conclusion:
“We acknowledge as a sport that there is much work to do, particularly in arresting the decline in club fifteens participation. We are well-advanced in our review of the Australian Strategic Plan, with a specific focus on this area of the game. There is however much evidence to suggest that our participation strategy at the junior level is generating some very encouraging results as we build up grassroots club rugby through growth in junior club rugby.”
I say “cringeworthy” conclusion because Bill Pulver has in the past accused the clubs of “pissing” away ARU money on player payments and so on.
Just over a year ago, for instance, at the Randwick Rugby Club’s launch of the 2016 Shute Shield season, Pulver and Cameron Clyne, the chairman of the ARU board, heard an impassioned and detailed call from Bob Dwyer and other impressive Randwick officials for more ARU support to heartland clubs like Randwick.
Dwyer tellingly challenged the ARU’s plan to develop new Super Rugby players and Wallabies through academies by pointing out Randwick alone had provided a fifth of the Australian Under-20s the year before.
That call has so far fallen on deaf ears. The Sydney clubs have taken matters into their own hands and have arranged a commercial streaming of the Shute Shield that follows up a manifestly successful club final between Norths and Sydney University last year.
To finish off the email cycle between myself and Michael Earsman, at 5.13pm 28 March 2017, I received a reply to my email which was sent earlier in the day:
Apologies for the late reply.
We have today addressed the Roy Morgan numbers via a statement, citing our participation figures for the yet to be released 2016 Annual Report, likewise our position on Super Rugby to clear up the current status after some recent speculation.
Regarding the Super Rugby review, if that is specifically what you mean by ‘other issues’ – SANZAAR agreed at the Exco table in London that nothing would be discussed publicly on the specifics of the review by any joint venture partners until the process reached finality. ARU has respected this commitment of the joint venture.
My thanks as well to Michael Earsman, who always replies to queries in a prompt manner. But, presumably under instructions, the reply did not engage me on the issue of the ARU’s policy of silence, not only on the future of Super Rugby but on virtually every other topic of contention.
The statement published to “clear up the current status” of the Super Rugby negotiations was typically without any information.
The key sentences in the statement were these: “We (the ARU) wish to confirm for the public record that no decision has been taken on the removal of one of Australia’s Super Rugby teams.
“ARU, as a joint venture partner of SANZAAR, is working towards a final resolution in the shortest timeframe possible and will inform Rugby fans as soon as an outcome is reached.”
In other words, the ARU’s position is that it has no position on what SANZAAR agreed at the Exco table in London, and if it had it is not going to tell the rugby public in Australia what that position is.
No wonder the three franchises (the Brumbies, the Melbourne Rebels and the Western Force) that are widely reported to be in danger of being booted out of the Super Rugby tournament, sooner or later, are furious with the ARU.
RUPA, the players union, is also up in arms and is insisting on the ARU retaining the five Super Rugby franchises.
Over a year ago, Bill Pulver and I had a heated discussion, in his office, on this matter of the ARU and its tendency to be silent on virtually every issue facing rugby in Australia.
I made the point to him that the New Zealand Rugby Union publishes details of its monthly board meetings and then has a hook-up with journalists to question the chief executive, Steve Tew, on what had been discussed.
I asked why the ARU doesn’t do the same thing. We don’t even know when the ARU has board meetings, let alone what discussions and decisions have been taken at them, I told Pulver.
Pulver told me that Rugby.com.au was the ARU’s way of keeping supporters informed on what was happening.
I told him that Rugby.com.au was a mediocre site that did no such thing.
And bringing this matter forward a year or so, I searched the site before the ARU – finally – made its statement for a commentary on the Roy Morgan poll and found nothing about the statistics on the site.
During our heated discussion, I made the point to Pulver that information that really should be published by the ARU, either through a statement or even on Rugby.com.au, often appeared as a sort of scoop to favoured journalists.
Pulver said to me, I could do what they did and ring him up to ask him about some decision or development and he would give me the answers to my questions.
He had no reply when I told him: “How can I ring you up for a comment about some decision made by the ARU board when I don’t know that this decision has actually been made?”
I then asked him, remember this was early last year, about how he was getting on with convincing the Super Rugby franchises to agree to a central contracting system run by the ARU for their players.
This is what the NZRU does. And the results of the New Zealand system, at Super Rugby and Test level in recent years, speak volumes for the central authority having control over who plays in the Super Rugby franchises, and sometimes where they play.
Pulver’s reply was amazing. “I can’t tell you about the negotiations,” he said. The negotiations were at a tricky stage and he didn’t want to compromise them.
Well, a year later we still do not know what stage the negotiations on central contracting are at.
Now this determination to keep all sectors of the rugby world, outside of officials working at the ARU, in total ignorance is beginning to backfire on Pulver and the ARU board. There are mutterings, becoming more and more vocal in rugby circles, that something has to be done about changing the board and its chief executive.
The catalyst for the backfiring is the mess the ARU has placed itself in with the proposed re-structure of the Super Rugby tournament, reducing it (perhaps?) from 18 teams to 15, a change that could mean dropping one of the Australian franchises.
At no time has the rugby community, or even the Super Rugby franchises, been allowed to have any input into the decision-making process on all the matters that affect them so seriously.
The Super Rugby franchises have finally understood, it seems, what the rugby community in the heartland of rugby have known for some time.
The silence of the ARU is really a cover-up for incompetency on the part of its board and its chief executive.