Bums on European seats wanted…again

Now that the dust has settled on some exhilarating stuff in last weekend’s Champions Cup the organisers should be asking a searching question: “Where have all the fans gone?”

At the quarter-final stage five years ago heavy support was generated all round – 55,000 in Barcelona, 49,762 in Dublin, 32,052 in San Sebastian and 21,309 in Milton Keynes, adding up to almost 160,000. This season’s total of 68,122 therefore represented a drop of 60 per cent.

I watched both semi-finals on television and the most telling image was the empty spaces at the Madejski Stadium and the City Ground in Nottingham. The aggregate total for the two games was 38,968. These are not figures that speak of a competition in the rudest of health. The aggregate attendance for last season’s semi-finals in St Etienne and Marseille was almost 77,000.

 

After all the only team that had to travel any real distance were Racing, and it is simply not good enough to plead that the likes of Saracens or even Wasps despite their Ricoh upturn in support, do not draw big numbers. Leicester Tigers are not regular visitors to European semi-finals but it seems many of the Welford Road regulars could not be bothered to travel the few miles to Nottingham. The last time Leicester played a semi-final at the city Ground, in 2002, they attracted a crowd of 29,849.

 

The absence of the well-supported Irish sides Munster, Leinster and Ulster is one factor in the decline. But there have been recurrent issues with knockout attendances involving Saracens as the home side. In both 2013 and 2014 their semi-finals at Twickenham were played in a stadium two-thirds empty, in contrast to last season’s vibrant occasion at St Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy Guichard when Clermont Auvergne’s “yellow army” turned up en noisy masse.

But then 80,000 turned up to watch Saracens at Wembley the other week. So how come? Saracens plan over a 12-month period for their Wembley outing, and pricing is a key part of the jigsaw they put together. Surely better to sell at a reduced cost. It is not the rugby product that is the issue; it is the pricing, with a range of £17.50 to £60 coming in at around £40 a ticket for the European semis.

If pricing and marketing is one failure another is timing. In the fractious talks that preceded the forming of the new competition there was pressure from the English and French clubs to free up the  calendar at the end of May so that the climax of the domestic season, particularly in France, would hold centre stage.

The squeeze came in Europe. The final itself was even earlier last season, May 2 at Twickenham, and although it has been pushed into a more appropriate slot this season, May 14 in Lyon, the two-week turnaround between the quarters and the semi has not worked. The most difficult game to sell in the entire competition is a semi-final package at neutral venues. A 14-day window is ridiculously restricted.

The organisers are under pressure to deliver profits back to the clubs who now own and run the competition. They need to sacrifice any short-term gain for long-term commitment from the public to this competition.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

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Bums on European seats wanted…

So how did that happen? Three Premiership sides in the last four of the major European rugby club competition  for only the second time in history, with two semi-finals on English soil to come and the distinct possibility of an all-English final in Lyons next month. Be honest. How many predicted any of this last October when England were being unceremoniously dumped out of their own Rugby World Cup at the group stage.

 

This Saturday around 80,000 people are expected to pack Wembley for the Premiership fixture between Saracens and Harlequins. Yet a gate of 8,050 to see Sarries overcome Northampton Saints in their quarter-final at Allianz Park last weekend made it the worst-attended European quarter-final since Stade Francais hosted Pau 15 years ago – and it beats that by a mere 50.

Apparently Saracens had planning permission to supply the necessary 15,000 seats for a quarter-final venue, but as it became clear their normal capacity of 10,000 was not going to be required, EPCR sensibly absolved them of the expense of extending their ground. Northampton were even said to have returned all but 600 of their 3,500 ticket allocation.

It is concerning that two old rivals competing in a major European competition and separated by only 60 miles of M1 could fail to fill a modestly sized stadium for a match as big as this – and a little depressing. There would appear to be some marketing and promotional lessons in there somewhere.

 

Meanwhile, around 5,000 empty seats were on display as Leicester thumped Stade Francais at Welford Road, and the Ricoh Arena was around 9,000 bums short of a sell-out for the epic match between Wasps and Exeter.

 

It may have been one of the busiest sporting weekends of the year and therefore fans’ attentions were somewhat divided. But something seems amiss when top-drawer knock-out European rugby fails to sell out.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Is Nigel Wray the new Ken Bates?

I was chatting with a Chelsea-supporting friend of mine as to which Premiership football clubs are kindred spirits with Premiership rugby clubs. Chelsea seemed an obvious link with Saracens. Both clubs have experienced recent success, though it is fair to say neither has been particularly popular outside their own supporters groups. One reason for this is that both have achieved success by splashing the cash, much of it, in the case of Saracens, allegedly “under the carpet”.

Both clubs have had chairmen who are, shall we say, not averse to coming forward with the odd strong opinion or two. I wouldn’t want to stretch the comparisons between Ken Bates and Nigel Wray too far (their lawyers might even read this) but certainly both men are famous for their provocative programme notes.

Nigel Wray wrote in his programme notes for the Exeter Chiefs game last weekend about losing key players to England while having to continue playing league matches. (Not a scenario admittedly with which Ken Bates had to deal for most of his reign). 

Wray wants the rugby calendar to be changed so that the clubs and England play at different times. He described the current system, whereby Aviva Premiership clubs lose their international players for three months every season, an “absolute nonsense.” Saracens had gone into the New Year unbeaten, but welcomed back their international players after a Six Nations run of three victories in seven matches.

“Professional rugby dawned 20 years ago and we still behave as if the game is amateur,” wrote Wray in his programme notes. “While it was a matter of pride to sit in Paris last Saturday and watch Saracens guys deservedly claim most of the awards, we are still left with the absolute nonsense that the Premiership clubs are giving their players to England to compete with them on the same day. Imagine saying to Arsenal and Chelsea you have to play the next 10 matches without eight top players.”

 

His solution was to reorganise the season so that the Premiership is played at different times to internationals. The play-off system does, to a certain extent, allow the top clubs to catch up at the end of the season but it is an unscientific process. And it is a fact that the clubs and owners have been responsible for making professionalism work, and had it not been for them it might have been still-born, in England at least

The problem with Wray’s comments is that they do not contain a definitive solution. Does he mean a global rugby calendar? The relative climates of the two hemispheres mean that the sensible change is for the northern hemisphere to move its season to the summer. Would the Six Nations survive such a change?

Does he mean a European super league? This would increase the standard of competition, but without a realistic and rigorously policed salary cap, such a league would rapidly become a playground for the rich only – presumably to include Saracens and their South African backers.

But there are many reasons not to trust those in charge of the European club game, whose interests and those of their respective unions are not mutual and there is no practical way of making them so.

Does he mean a reduction in the number of internationals? The autumn internationals could be cut from the current four games but the battle over this would be fierce and the unions involved would complain bitterly at the loss of any of these cash cows, as I suspect would the fans who would miss the chance to see teams from outside the European enclave.

 

Whatever the solution there are a number of drawbacks. The most effective I believe would be to move northern hemisphere rugby to mirror its southern counterpart. Not only would this make a more coherent set of fixtures, the better weather, better playing conditions and relative lack of competition from football would be significant positives.

Nothing is likely to change any time soon, but what rugby union cannot afford to do is to think conservatively when it bothers to actually think about the future of the game.

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk