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Whither Rugby? 2004/5

By BrianC
June 3 2005

This is the first article of a major series of looking at club rugby crowd patterns. We will look at the 2004/5 season in particular and the longer term, historical, perspective. Whither Rugby

Whither Rugby? - 2004/5

The 2004/5 Zurich Premiership season is now behind us. I will be presenting the crowd statistics in some detail over the next few weeks. The figures are as published. My interpretation of them will, to a certain extent, be subjective. As previously, I declare that I am a London Irish supporter however I have strived throughout this series of articles to be objective.

Those who are new to this series may be interested in the Complete Whither Rugby articles, first published last May/June. Some may wish to understand more fully the rationale behind the figures. This I have covered in some detail in The Figures Explained which I have updated in particular to show my handling of the London Double Header.

Grow Grow Grow

The 2004/5 season has seen significant growth in numbers attending Zurich games. In the 2003/4 season there was an average of 8464 per home Zurich game, in the 04/05 season it was 9752. This is a very respectable 15.2% growth, the second largest of the professional era in percentage terms and the largest in absolute numbers. If you remove the wild card play offs and the Zurich Championship from both sets of figures and simply concentrate on the Zurich Premiership games the growth becomes even healthier. Those 132 games saw gates 16.9% up over last season.

There are a number of key factors behind this growth.

- The new kids on the Premiership block, Worcester, have made a significant impact, with an average gate of 8150. Their predecessor, Rotherham, averaged gates of 3205 in the 2003/4 season. Just as the Worcester performances on field have been stronger than those of Rotherham, the off field success is clear to see.

- Ground capacity, or rather lack of it, continues to be the major challenge facing club rugby union in the professional era. The 2004/5 season has seen capacity increases at Bath(+500), Gloucester(+2000) and Harlequins(+1500). In all three of these cases the extra capacity limits have been hit many times such is the latent demand. Capacity crowds have also already been recorded on multiple occasions at Leicester, Northampton, Wasps and Worcester.

- As is clearly demonstrated by the graph below the London Double Header, in its inaugural year, had a significant impact on the round one figures. The concept was conceived by Premier Rugby in conjunction with the four 'London' based clubs. On the first day of this season fifty one thousand spectators were attracted to Twickenham to watch two games, London Irish vs Harlequins and Saracens vs Wasps. Had the two games been played separately at the respective home venues the total crowd would almost certainly have been no more than 20k.

- Another issue that this graph highlights is the positive impact that the threat of relegation has on crowd numbers. To fully appreciate the scale of this you should bear in mind that the second half of the 03/04 season was held in the warm afterglow of England's RWC victory hence the crowds in the second half of that season were boosted. Also take into account that Rotherham had, to all intents and purposes, been relegated half way through the season. Now compare the crowds. In rounds 11 to 17 there is little or no growth on the previous season. The last five rounds tell a very different story as the 'relegation factor' kicks in. The boost this season has been given by the relegation battle is clear to see.

- Few would dispute that there is a Rugby World Cup factor at work here. This most likely has manifested itself in two differing ways. This season extra crowds have been attracted thanks in part to the raised profile of the sport. It is also arguable that the crowds in the first part of last season were reduced as the stars were on international call up and the attraction of the domestic game was somewhat diminished. I plan to deal with this in greater detail later in this series of articles.

After a couple of lean years at the end of last decade crowds have grown steadily since. Overall they are up by two thirds since the start of the decade, a remarkable achievement in anyone's book. At the end of the 04/05 season Howard Thomas, the outgoing chief executive of Premiership Rugby, went on record as saying that rugby has the potential in terms of crowds to match the Coca-Cola championship. That optimism does not seem misplaced.

Season Average Crowd Growth on Previous Season
97-98 6764
98-99 6398 -5.4%
99-00 6097 -4.7%
00-01 6321 3.7%
01-02 7536 19.2%
02-03 8286 10.0%
03-04 8468 2.2%
04-05 9752 15.2%

As is usually the case, a look at the headline figures does not tell the full story. To see the underlying growth of the clubs who were already in the premiership we have to strip out the impact that both Worcester and the London double header have had. Once this is done the growth is a more modest figure of around 9%. The bulk of this growth can itself be attributed to latent demand, where increased ground capacity has quickly been swallowed up.

Overall growth looks set to continue in the longer term although, I might dare to suggest, it could well be static or even show a slight decline next season. With their new West Stand development complete Harlequins could have been expected to pull in average crowds well in excess of 10k. Bristol, the team replacing them in the GP, will do well to average crowds of 7k. Furthermore significant ground expansion at Gloucester together with Leicester's planned move to the 32k capacity Walker Stadium have been put on hold for at least a year.

Expansion is due to go ahead at Northampton and Worcester, both clubs with recurring capacity problems during 04/05 and both likely to see the bulk of any additional capacity quickly swallowed up. If we can assume that the Leicester move and Gloucester expansion do go ahead in time for the 06/07 season we will then witness significant growth.

The impact that Leicester's proposed move, if and when it does happen, will have both on overall crowd numbers and on pushing those clubs who have procrastinated over important decisions into making them cannot be overstated. Given the latent demand there is, I expect Leicester to average gates in the mid to high twenty thousands in the season they move.

Our sport has continued to thrive and looks set to do so for the foreseeable future. Thus far this influx of newer support seems to have embraced the ethos of rugby. There appears to be little or none of the crowd problems that have dogged the round ball game. There is still very much a 'family' atmosphere amongst supporters. This is arguably the greatest single advantage our sport has over the round ball game in terms of attracting a new audience. The trick, as it has been, will be to maintain that advantage in the face of what looks set to be ever increasing support.

In the next part of this series we'll look at how the individual teams have performed in the 04/05 season against each other and against what they achieved in 03/04.

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