If there’s something about rugby that never fails to bewilder, it’s the demands for national action to address problems in Australian rugby that are mostly local.
Regardless, a massive problem is gripping Super Rugby in Australia. It needs urgent attention at both franchise and national levels.
After just 6,311 people enjoyed the ample space on offer while the Brumbies ran away to a dominant 22-10 bonus point win over the Bulls, the South African conference leaders, the extent of the Brumbies’ shrinking attendances became as obvious as the empty grey seats at Canberra Stadium.
After seven matches, the Brumbies crowd in 2019 is currently sitting just below last year’s record low average.
In context, the Brumbies crowds are no worse than the Reds, Waratahs and Rebels. Currently, the Waratahs indicative average of 13,336 is sitting around five thousand above that of the Brumbies. The Reds’ is about 1300 fewer than that, and the Rebels another thousand below again.
But I deliberately use the word ‘indicative’. In coming to these averages, unofficial crowd numbers have to be used in lieu of actual announced attendances.
The Rebels’ current average of 11,209 just happens to be their one and only confirmed figure, the Highlanders game back in Round 3. I can’t imagine subsequent crowd figures have been kept quiet because they’re higher.
On that front, perhaps the Brumbies’ biggest mistake in 2019 has been announcing any crowds at all, never mind doing it every game.
When viewed alongside the populations of Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, Canberra’s 8,332 doesn’t look too bad at all. But when viewed next to the 14,913 the Canberra Raiders are currently enjoying, the number is as bad as it looks again.
Over the years, and as recently as a few weeks ago when I asked some punters for a TV story, the popular and most common answers to the question of ‘what will bring the Brumbies crowds back?’ have been ‘win games’ and ‘play attractive rugby’. ‘More afternoon games’ is never far behind, either.
But in 2019, all three of those common fan demands have occurred and they haven’t made a lick of difference.
The Brumbies opened their season with one of their best performances in years in putting fifty on the Chiefs. They followed that up with a gritty win over the Waratahs, the team more than any other Brumbies fans love beating.
They went to South Africa and beat the Stormers at Newlands; something few foreign teams have done in the last decade. Dan McKellar labelled that win one of the best he’d ever been associated with.
Then they came back from the Republic and kept winning. A grinding win over the Blues. A clinical thumping of the Sunwolves. Friday night’s demolition of the Bulls.
They’re easily the most adaptable of the Australian sides, and probably only the Crusaders match them in terms of being able to play the right game to beat different opposition in 2019. The Brumbies have won playing expansively, they won playing grinding breakdown contests, and they’ve won tackling themselves in the ground.
They are playing great rugby. They are winning games, six on the trot at home in fact. They have played in the afternoon. And they deserve to be playing in front of much bigger crowds than they are.
At the start of the season, Rugby Australia were making noises about making a significant investment toward marketing Super Rugby. Save for a couple of bus stop posters around Canberra ahead of the Waratahs game back in March – which at the time Brumbies knew nothing about – I’ve not seen much evidence of this investment.
Generally speaking, game marketing has been whatever the Brumbies can muster themselves, which for the Bulls games last week was widespread: radio, TV, print, online, emails, social media, roadside signage. It didn’t help.
‘Playing games on a (ACT) long weekend doesn’t help,’ people told me when I vented my frustration at the 6,311 figure over the weekend. That same reasoning didn’t appear to hurt the Raiders when more than double that number turned up for the North Queensland Cowboys game the next day.
And so this is where RA and SANZAAR need to step in. Clearly whatever the clubs are doing on their own isn’t enough. The Melbourne and Canberra crowds prove that winning games and playing style alone isn’t enough.
If the clubs’ best efforts both on and off the field can’t lift the awareness and perceptions of Super Rugby, then RA and SANZAAR need to do more. Or ‘something’, in SANZAAR’s case.
This isn’t even just an Australia-only issue. Crowds in New Zealand are similarly scarce. South African stadia have appeared ghostly, to the point where just over seven thousand attended the Bulls-Waratahs game at the cavernous Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria earlier this month.
It’s an incredible irony that the Sunwolves remain the one side consistently drawing good crowds at home, despite becoming SANZAAR’s latest sacrificial offering. What will happen when the 14-team round robin and fewer local derbies doesn’t change anything? What will SANZAAR cut off next?
Something’s got to give. The Queensland Reds game on June 15 and any home finals they happen to earn will be the last chance the Brumbies have to improve on what has been the only disappointing element of their season.
And even then, they face the very real prospect that earning a home final could cost them money, once they pay the opposition team upwards of $75,000 per SANZAAR revenue-sharing guidelines.
And in the most perverse of rewards, a qualifying final win could secure a home semi-final and yet more financial pain if there isn’t a significant uplift in attendances.
Last Friday, it was really interesting to hear NRL CEO Todd Greenberg admit that the Raiders and other regional NRL clubs probably haven’t been given enough love over the years. His first visit to the Capital for the year was part of a national touring schedule, designed to ensure all 16 clubs know where the governing body want to take the game.
Greenberg committed to regular ongoing visits to Canberra, too, not just annual meetings.
Do any of the Super Rugby sides know where SANZAAR wants to take Super Rugby? Does SANZAAR know where SANZAAR wants to take Super Rugby?
Andy Marinos is the SANZAAR CEO – based in Sydney, too, for what it’s worth – but I couldn’t even tell you the last time he put out a public statement, let alone fronted the cameras.
The silent, faceless way that Super Rugby is administered off the field is echoed directly in the complete lack of cut-through the on-field product is currently achieving, despite how good it might actually be. That’s why stadium atmosphere in most cities remains underwhelming.
And until that changes, we’ll continue to have this depressing and frankly illogical stand-off where rugby fans are ignoring the very things they say they want more of, all because they claim they don’t know it’s happening.
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