While Rugby Australia come to grips with the reality of another modest Bledisloe Cup crowd, Twiggy Forrest has his own fresh set of numbers to ponder as a decision on the Western Force’s future looms.
The bad news first? The Force take on Hong Kong in Perth tonight in the sixth game – and second-last – of the inaugural World Series Rugby competition and crowds are on the wane.
Since 19,466 turned up at nib Stadium for their opening match against Fiji in early May, crowds have steadily dropped off – apart from a slight rise for the clash with the Crusaders during the June Test window.
A count of 11,678 was recorded for their most recent game against Apia Samoa, meaning there’s a fair chance that a Hong Kong side lacking genuine street cred will result in a crowd figure under 10,000.
That would correlate to a halving of the Force’s crowd figures over just six matches.
It’s a sobering decline given the jubilation in the stands at the first game – which was both a celebration of the survival of professional rugby in Western Australia and a big middle finger to Rugby Australia, who booted the Force out of the Super Rugby competition.
But it’s hardly dire when weighed up against recent crowds of 6,821 in Canberra to watch the Brumbies beat the Hurricanes and 10,340 for the Queensland Reds’ defeat of the Melbourne Rebels in Brisbane. Just over 12,000 rolled in for the Waratahs’ week-one finals win over the Highlanders in Sydney.
New Zealand and South Africa have also contended with ordinary crowd numbers this season, but at least Super Rugby can fall back on decent TV ratings to prove it retains a significant level of popularity despite the structural dilemmas of the last few years.
And the good news? Apparently there are 47 million ready-made rugby fans in just two Asian countries that he can pitch any new version of World Series Rugby to.
In survey figures released by World Rugby this week, China have 33 million rugby fans alone. That’s the equal-highest, along with the United States, of any nation. India have 25 million fans while next year’s World Cup hosts Japan are in the top 10 with 14 million.
They are the kind of figures that a businessman as successful and thorough as Forrest would salivate over given he’s clearly targeting the Asian market.
The numbers seem mind-blowing and a sceptic would naturally question how deep a rugby connection is required to be considered a “fan” in a survey. But if anyone can capitalise on even superficial interest and translate it into sponsors, TV deals and other commercial opportunities, it’s Twiggy.
World Rugby’s own commissioned research and its stark findings also mean that the governing body will likely support Forrest’s rugby investment in the region – if not financially, then by at least pressuring the better-resourced Rugby Australia to work with the WA billionaire.
RA chief executive Raelene Castle can do with all the friends she can muster. The projected crowd for next Saturday’s clash against the All Blacks in Sydney is about 55,000 to 60,000.
Last year’s 54,846 – at the same venue at ANZ Stadium in Homebush – was the smallest Bledisloe crowd of the professional era.
Now they are sobering figures given the slump since the boom days of the early 2000s.
This is meant to be RA’s time to stash some dough away to pay the bills. Michael Hooper has recently signed on, but Bernard Foley and Israel Folau remain unsigned for next season.
Why the delay in sealing some signatures? Perhaps there isn’t enough money to go around for the Big Three.
Is Forrest courting Folau to be his marquee man in WSR? It’s not inconceivable that Izzy still harbours some resentment towards RA over the handling of the “homophobic” tweet saga. No one ever imagined he would go to AFL, right?