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

 

 

Is New Jersey Rugby’s Promised Land?

It’s probably fair to say opinions varied as to the success of the opening night of Premiership Rugby in the United States last weekend. For the record Saracens beat London Irish 26-16 but the actual result, which kept Sarries on top of the Premiership pile, and the Exiles rooted even more firmly to the bottom, seemed to be lost in the general hoopla.
Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, like all good promoters, employed a few embellishments and exaggerations to label the venture a roaring success. He called it a “great match”, which it was certainly not, and even the official attendance of 14,811, seemed to this television viewer, a few thousand ahead of reality judging by the number of empty seats.
McCafferty maintained that “It’s a start. I think everybody knows how huge a market the US is and how huge a sports market it is.”
This was the first in a three –year agreement to stage matches at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, though whether London Irish are involved in the fixture next year remains to be seen, as they sit eight points adrift of safety with only six games to play.

Admittedly, the timing could have been better. It was not just that this historic occasion clashed with a moderately interesting fixture between England and Wales. The call last week by 70 “experts” for tackling to be outlawed in schools attracted plenty of debate and inevitable ridicule. But what cannot be so quickly brushed aside is the increasing number of so-called “soccer moms” in the States, parents afraid of the potential physical harm to Bradley junior from their playing American football. No doubt one of the most popular questions asked of the Premiership visitors was “Where are your helmets guys?”

Amid the usual rejoinders about American football tacklers leading with their heads with the resultant extra potential for concussions, rugby’s rulers would do well not to sound so complacent and gung ho. There are a few key areas rugby union needs to get right before it can hope to sell itself compellingly to a market already familiar with big blokes running into each other. The most obvious are the types of high hit which such players as Manu Tuilagi have made their stock-in-trade.
The England player James Haskell pointed out that teaching young kids the correct tackling technique at the right age is absolutely fundamental. And herein surely lies the key to exporting rugby union to the US. Back in the day the round ball game was introduced on premise of the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer looking for a pension. Eventually, the professional game withered and died. There was a recognition that the sport would only take root if the native younger generation took it up at school level, and this tied in nicely with the “soccer mum” phenomenon. So would a new sport built around physical content encourage those same soccer moms to steer Bradley junior towards that muscular new sport on the block?

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Will Europe suffer World Cup hangover?

Amongst all the coverage of the forthcoming World Cup it would have been easy to miss the announcement last week of the fixtures for next season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
Because of the World Cup the competition doesn’t start until mid-November, but there are some exciting matches in prospect. There is the inevitable “Group of Death”, Pool 5, involving a previous Heineken Cup winning quartet of Leinster, Wasps, Toulon and Bath.

But there must be a question mark over how big the World Cup hangover will be, and which of the European Champions Cup contenders will be hit hardest. The answer to this will play a huge part in determining which of Toulon’s rivals will stand the best chance of prising their hands off the trophy.
Saracens are easily the Premiership’s leading lights after reaching a final and two semi-finals in the last three years. They start their hoped-for route to Lyon with a tie against fading French giants Toulouse at Allianz Park.

Their rugby director Mark McCall reflected on the competition. “ The different slant to this season is that the World Cup final will be played two weeks before the first game, and we don’t know who will be in the final – but if England were to get into the final we don’t know how our players will be coming back into the club with Toulouse just two weeks away.”

The reality is that if England, France, Ireland, Wales or Scotland reach the World Cup last four, or even the quarter finals, the sizeable international contingents of clubs like Saracens, Bath, Toulouse and Leinster could be severely compromised. Injuries, fatigue, as well as factors like loss of form all come into the post-World Cup equation.

It suggests that clubs with strong squads which are not heavily hit by international calls could thrive in the coming campaign, because, ironically, the revised format introduced a year ago, means any side that does not hit the ground running puts its quarter-final prospects in danger.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Saints win away from Home

April 25,2015
StadiumMK, Milton Keynes

Aviva Premiership
Round 20
Northampton Saints v Saracens

Northampton…….25
Saracens…………..20

Attendance 27,411

Stadium MK will get its first taste of international rugby at the World Cup later this year, when it is scheduled to host three matches, including the France v Canada game on October 1.Today’s “Best of British”, top-of-the-table clash between Northampton Saints and Saracens has long been switched to the 30,500 capacity stadium as part of tournament organiser England Rugby 2015’s operational testing programme.
Let’s hope they were watching closely. There was gridlock around the ground for more than three hours before the 3.15 kick-off; due it would seem mainly to road closures.
The last time I was here I picked a Saturday when the infamous “engineering works” meant a half-an-hour journey took almost five times as long. Has anyone bothered to check that Network Rail does not intend to carry out work on the West Coast main line next October?
This wasn’t the only cock-up. Saracens had to do a quick change of shirts at half-time because of a clash with Northampton. Saints had informed Sarries that they would be wearing a St George’s Day kit of red and white, designed to support Help for Heroes. Saracens must have not got the message and the visitors turned up in their normal away strip of all-white. The referee allowed the game to go ahead while Saracens had their normal black shirts delivered by a police escort in time for the second half.

Both teams have used Stadium Mk as a home from home in the past. Saracens were the first club to host a rugby match at the ground when Bristol visited in 2008, providing a grand stage for Rugby World Cup 2003 winner Richard Hill’s 288th and last appearance for the men in black. A last-minute try from Kameli Ratuvou ensured Hill’s 15-year club career finished on a winning note.
Northampton then used Stadium MK as a base for their assault on the Heineken Cup knockout stages in 2011. The Saints defeated Ulster and Perpignan in front of big crowds in the quarter and semi-finals. The following season also saw Munster stop by for a pool match, with Simon Zebo marking one of the most thrilling chapters in the stadium’s short rugby history with a hat-trick as the Irish side won an entertaining contest 51-36.Saracens once again visited for their home Premiership fixture against the Saints on December 310, 2012, while their new stadium at Barnet was being built.

MK Dons moved to their brand new stadium (which cost about £50million to build) in 2007. From the outside it has a modern look, with good use of silver coloured cladding and a large amount of glass on view. The most striking feature is the stadium’s roof, which sits high up above the ground with a large gap between it and the back row of seating which allows more natural light to reach the pitch. The stadium is totally enclosed and has a bowl like design.
The overall look of the stadium has recently benefitted from the installation of seating into the previously unused upper tier. This will take the capacity to 30,700 for the World Cup. It is two-tiered, with three sides having a large lower tier over-hung by a smaller upper tier. The west side of the stadium is slightly different, with the seating areas in the upper tier being replaced by the Directors box and executive and corporate hospitality areas.Unusally the spacious concourse areas at the back of the lower tier see directly into the stadium, so where is what seems a noticeable gap between the lower and upper tiers is where the concourse is located.

Once you get into the stadium it is a delight. Chatting with other fans, the majority were greatly impressed, commenting on the comfort and legroom in the seating, with excellent views of the action and a great atmosphere. The toilet facilities have been especially praised by many fans, male and female, offering wide entrances, soap and hot running water. Such luxuries at a football ground! The stadium even has such creature comforts as padded seats and the ability to watch the game in progress whilst munching a burger on the concourse.
There was an excellent fan area with around 15 branches of famous restaurants. Provided you set off in the next week or two to make sure you arrive on time, then the Milton Keynes World Cup experience should be fabulous….

But enough quibbling…let’s not forget there was a game of rugby. This biting and blasting contest marked the end of Northampton’s late-season dip. After their heavy defeats at Clermont and Exeter they had the game to hold off an heroic attempt by Saracens to dethrone them from the top of the table. Saracens, themselves coming off a draining match in France against Clermont, had to absorb the massive blow of losing Billy Vunipola in the first half to injury, being pulverised by the referee and losing a significant lead. But their commitment was beyond praise.
However, the Saints eventually overcame the sinners of Saracens, whose discipline collapsed along with their scrum after the break, when they were penalised 13 times and finished a match they led for the most part fortunate to have a bonus point. When Stephen Myler gave his side the lead for the first time 63 minutes in it was via his fifth penalty, and the Saints had found a way to win.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Is the Premiership being devalued?

There was an interesting shot of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell and one or two other red-rose luminaries huddled together watching the Saracens-Bath game in north London 10 days ago. Interesting because it reminded the television audience how the very grandest Premiership matches are diminished when played at the wrong point in the season. So will the elite club game in England continue to chuck bricks through its own shop window by staging a top fixture on International weekends, or will it take steps to protect its property?

If Farrell was watching from the stand because he was not fit enough to do anything more energetic, the others were there for Six Nations reasons, having just played for their country against Italy. Back in the time of Noah, they would probably have turned out in both games and drunk themselves silly after each, but top-end professionals can barely countenance two outings in six days, let alone two in 24 hours. While football has the midweek option to help it through a congested fixture list, rugby is in a very different place – and as a result, the Premiership suffers.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk