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.