Is rugby popular, or not very popular at all? The answer is, perhaps weirdly, both.
When it comes to international rugby, cup finals, or some annual “special” games, it attracts big numbers. 55,000 fans went to Murrayfield to see Saracens beat Clermont in 2017, 74,000 watched Wales beat Scotland, 82,000 watched England beat Wales and 67,000 saw Scotland turn England over. Indeed, pretty much every international game is a sell-out.
But step away from the cup and international arena into the Premiership and it’s usually a different story.
While in 2017 crowds were up by 10% to an average of 13,833, many clubs simply don’t seem to have much pulling power, much of the time. Last year, table-topping Wasps averaged just over 15,000 in the 32,000 capacity Ricoh arena, despite the fact you would be guaranteed to see some good winning rugby. Harlequins hosted Bath at The Stoop in front of a crowd of 7,450. That is less than Notts Count’s average attendance in the fourth tier of English football.
But it is a confused picture, because when Harlequins play the annual December “Big Game” at Twickenham, over 77,000 can turn up. It’s still Premiership rugby, but it’s a special occasion housed at Twickenham and apparently this makes it irresistible.
Small crowds at some of the grounds are obviously due to limited capacity. Exeter sit atop the league with a ground that holds just 12,800. While there’s nothing worse than being in a 35,000-capacity stadium with 25,000 empty seats, a severely restricted capacity could be a self-perpetuating unpopularity. Surely a side like Exeter who are going to finish first could attract a bigger crowd. After all, fans tend to flock to winners.
It would appear there simply isn’t a strong enough club culture to draw sizeable crowds for most league games, even though the quality of these games is not significantly worse entertainment. How to explain London Irish’s average attendance being about 8-10,000 at the 24,0000-capacity Madeiski but 54,000 at Twickenham for the London Double Header?
Football has a tribal loyalty that seems largely missing from rugby. It may or may not mean fans are less blinkered and one-eyed, but it also means ties to the club are perhaps not as strong. Far fewer people turn up to every game out of loyalty, or even out of mere habit.
The reason for modest (if rising) crowds must actually be both cultural and structural. The lesson from the attendance gulf between “special” games and the rest must be that to pull bigger crowds, more games must somehow be made to be special. Indeed, it is essential for this to happen if the Premiership clubs’ finances to improve.