For all we talk about the quality of the game of rugby league, fans (generally) aren’t voting with their feet – even in Super League.
Last night’s Super League game at Widnes’ Select Security Stadium against Salford brought in a pretty meagre crowd of just 4,007 and was therefore played in front of a sparse stadium – not a great impression for those watching on television. For those who would argue that those two teams are unlikely to draw in fans from far and wide, the heavyweight clash last weekend between St Helens and Leeds Rhinos at the appallingly named Totally Wicked Stadium saw 11,482 through the turnstiles – just 64% of the stadium’s capacity. Was it the weather? The fact it was on tv? Lack of interest?
Either way, it doesn’t look good. The weather is a fair enough reason; the ‘beast from the east’ has decimated Britain’s sporting schedule over the last month and there is nothing we can do about that. People quite rightly may not wish to expose themselves or their family to freezing conditions and, of course, the situation on the roads varied throughout the country but – especially in the north – there were closures, accidents and serious delays. The fact it was on tv shouldn’t really make a difference; if you are a fan, you should be at one of the biggest games of the season, no? However, for many people money may be tight and, practically, it does seem slightly daft to pay for a Sky subscription to get access to the rugby league but then to pay again on the turnstiles. That, by the way, is a view I don’t embody myself BUT can certainly understand.
The lack of interest, however, is not one that should be accepted. If a team is aware that they aren’t going to fill the stadium, give the tickets away – give them to the feeder clubs that support the club’s academy, give them to kids in school, give them to youth groups in the area. If the young people come in for free, the chances are they will be accompanied by an adult. The club in question would then get merchandise, food and drink purchased by more people. Plus, if the product on the pitch is entertaining – it doesn’t even need to be high quality, just fun to watch – those people who got in for free may well come back. York City Knights have, since the Jon Flatman takeover, taken this a bit further by allowing all under 16s into any of their matches free. That started last year and has continued this, meaning that those getting in for nothing last season at the age of 16 will now have to pay. York’s only home game thus far has been the Bradford Bulls one so it wouldn’t make sense to look at that attendance and conclude that the system has brought more fans in but, over the course of the season, it will be interesting to see if that approach has paid off.
There are, of course, other teams who do this sort of thing but there certainly are many who could do more – there are teams in Super League who simply don’t fill their stadiums and, unlike football, rugby league can’t rely on sponsorship and say they don’t need fans in the ground – we do. Finances aren’t the same. It is vital to get bums on seats and the marketing departments throughout the game would do well to look into it. Look at the NRL, the stadiums look to be packed out every game. We play the same sport here; promotion needs to continue and improve, as does the marketing.
This article is, of course, coming just days after Eddie Hearn suggested he would “take a bulldozer” to the sport – there’s certainly interesting times ahead.