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On Field vs. Off

By BrianC
August 22 2005

When I first collated the figures for the original 'Whither Rugby' series of articles in early 2004 one of the things that particularly struck me was the apparent lack of correlation in many instances between success on field and that off it. On Field vs

Perhaps the biggest single piece of evidence to support the contention that crowd numbers have little to do with victorious teams is the fact that the two fastest growing clubs of the professional era, London Irish and Sale have won little in the way of silverware. There are numerous other examples one could cite, a recent one being that Quins, despite having been relegated, look set to sell more season tickets than most Guinness Premiership clubs.

This is not to say that success on field does not attract extra crowds. To counter the argument posed above one could merely point to the unquestioned supremacy of Leicester both in terms of trophies won and crowd numbers over the professional era. Or to Wasps, particularly in recent seasons, where their success both in domestic and European competition has clearly had an impact on numbers.

The truth is that to say 'Get things right on field and the crowds will come' is as over simplistic as saying 'It doesn't matter what happens on field, get the experience right and people will come'. There is a mix of factors that draws in crowds. Performance yes, but also pricing, promotions, atmosphere, stars, environment, weather, luck, etc, etc.

One pattern I believe there is, and I do have to say that as a London Irish supporter this concerns me, at least in the short term, is that crowd growth or decline appears to be a 'lagging indicator'. In the same way as unemployment numbers usually continue to rise after an economy has started recovering from a recession it appears that success or failure on the field of play can take a number of years to work through into crowd numbers.

To illustrate this we can look at two clubs, London Irish and Wasps. By some way the most successful season for London Irish the professional era was 2001/2. In that season they won the Powergen Cup and, for the only time thus far, they qualified for the following seasons Heineken Cup. Growth that season was a healthy 17% but this figure is pretty much in line with that of the previous two seasons which saw crowds up 15.3% and 27.6% respectively.

It was only in the season after the success, ironically a terrible one on field, that London Irish saw their biggest surge in crowds with a remarkable jump of 43.2% in 02/03. There were a number of factors behind this growth not least aggressive ticket pricing and a season ticket package which included three Heineken Cup games. Despite the poor 03/04 season crowds held up remarkably well, growing by 7.4%.

It is now a matter of record that the 04/05 one was a poor one off field for LI. For the first time in the professional era they registered a drop, albeit a small one of 1.2%, in gates. This in a season where rugby crowds across the board were up by 15.2%. The questions we must ask are; How much of this drop was down to poor play in the 04/05 season itself? How much was down to cumulative disillusion after the two previously poor seasons? and how much was down to other factors? Speaking personally, I can see little which can be attributed to the latter of those questions.

Wasps are another point in case. In the last three seasons they have come second in the premiership. In 02/03 they won the Heineken cup. Despite all this success on field they saw no growth in crowd numbers in 03/04 over 02/03. The healthy surge in 02/03 over 01/02 can be largely attributed to their move to The Causeway Stadium and, as London Irish had previously done, to finding a ready rugby audience in the Thames valley.

It was only in the last season, some two years after their successful run on field started, that we have begun to see crowds following success. The jump in gates of 17.2% would have been even higher were it not for the fact that they now have capacity problems at The Causeway. Five of their home ZP games were sold out last season.    

Nobody questions the fact that on field success does eventually draw in the crowds. It is however not the panacea that some make it out to be. Likewise on field failure, at least in the short term, need not necessarily cause crowds to decline.

The final article in this years series of 'Wither Rugby?' articles will take a look at the forthcoming season. As well at the mathematical projections used last season I am going to have a go at predicting what the crowds for each club will be.

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