With all that has happened to the Waratahs in 2021 so far, from suffering six defeats in a row to sacking coach Rob Penney midseason, it seems the fact that hardly anyone is going to matches at all, is being overlooked by many.
While many fans are wary to come back to live sport while the threat of a pandemic still hangs over the country, other codes have shown us recently that there is an appetite to consume sport at the ground again, so while no-one is expecting the Tahs to sell out the Olympic Stadium, the numbers they have put up this season are pretty dire by any measure – well, the ones they are willing to release anyway.
The last crowd figure the Waratahs posted was over a month ago, on 5 March, when just 4264 people filed into Parramatta’s Bankwest Stadium to watch the Tahs take on the Force. Since then the Waratahs have played two more home games, one at Stadium Australia and the other at the SCG, but neglected to release the attendance figures.
One can only speculate upon the numbers, but almost all doubt they are being withheld because they are higher than previous crowds.
So rather than lament how Waratahs crowds have dropped on average by approximately 20,000 since 2005 or sit around and patiently wait for the new stadium to be built and the team to start winning again – two things that will surely bring some fans back – I have decided to be proactive and outline four key areas that the Waratahs need to address immediately to help build crowds again.
1. Build a match-day experience
The atmosphere inside stadiums begins outside. The match-day buzz should be felt long before you you find your seat, particularly in areas like Homebush and Parramatta.
Bars and restaurants need to be adorned with Tahs paraphernalia, and the organisation needs to go out of its way to let the local community know that it is game day in town today. This may be as simple as creating a match-day bar and putting up banners at the train station or having a meeting point and making a Waratahs walk down Church Street leading towards the stadium. On Olympic Boulevard at Homebush there could be pop-up marquees and fan zones to try and fill the very expansive area outside the stadium.
The Waratahs have created an online match-day guide called the Tah Times; this could be a great guide to what the club is doing round the match-day experience, yet all it included for the Reds game was a team list, which included what private schools the players went to. In this day and age, with so much choice available, fans expect and appreciate more for their ticket price.
2. Tap into Sydney’s event-loving culture
While the NRL has its own issues with attendance in Sydney, it is light-years ahead of Super Rugby. If you look at the Easter weekend crowds at Homebush, they were both well above 20,000, and why? Because they were huge Easter events.
Both the NRL and its clubs have worked hard in recent years to create must-see events around the Good Friday and Easter Monday games. The same goes for Anzac Day for both the NRL and AFL.
Due to the relatively short nature of Super Rugby AU, the Waratahs could create an event around every home game, whether it is against our cross-state rivals the Brumbies or playing on the Sydney-Melbourne one-upmanship. And then there’s perhaps the greatest rivalry in Aussie sport, New South Wales versus Queensland.
When you look at it in isolation any event featuring (sky) Blue versus (dark) Red should be an instant success because the heavy lifting has already been done for rugby. The Waratahs have only a handful of games in the super Rugby AU set up. They need to work hard to make each one of them a must-see event.
3. Engage active fans
There is no hiding from the fact that Waratahs home games at present are devoid of any atmosphere. They need to find fans who will bring the noise, whether it is by finding groups of passionate Sydney club rugby fans and offering them free tickets and merchandise to turn up to Super Rugby or by seeking out European expats to bring a football atmosphere to the games. However it’s done, loud engaged and passionate fans make others take notice and want to be part of something.
Many will argue this goes against the proper culture that rugby has spent generations cultivating, yet it is clear that in Australia’s egalitarian culture rugby’s ‘proper culture’ is missing the mark. As a Greek migrant who still lives in Western Sydney I have seen firsthand how rugby can welcome all, yet there are elements of the game that shun those who come across as less prosperous or unrefined. The game needs to shake off this perception of exclusivity and bring the noise.
4. Collaboration with other sports
The Waratahs share the state and particularly Sydney with many other high-profile teams, and while the media and sometimes the codes themselves love to perpetuate the code war narrative, I highly doubt relations are as frosty as some make out. The Tahs should therefore work with teams such as Sydney FC, the Swans and GWS as well as the Roosters and Parramatta Eels on either a double-header scenario where possible or a multiple-game ticket to try and engage different fans from across the state.
A fan from outside of the city may be more likely to make the journey if they can get multiple sports from the one ticket, and it could also be a way to introduce rugby to a new audience.
With the Nine Network now broadcasting both the NRL and rugby, a double-header starring the Tahs and an NRL powerhouse could be a broadcast hit and go some way to unifying two sometimes fractured fan-bases.
Rugby is seen as undergoing somewhat of a revival here in Australia, and it is no more evident than here in Sydney. You cannot walk 20 metres in the CBD without seeing a Waratahs player plastered on a billboard or the back of a bus, and while this may be making a difference in regard to streaming views, it definitely isn’t selling tickets to rugby games in New South Wales.
The Waratahs are the biggest team in the biggest rugby state, but at the moment their crowds are at an all-time low. The Waratahs cannot just hide the figures and hope the situation fixes itself on its own. They need to go out into the community and build proactive engaged support before there are no fans left.