In what has generally been a forgettable Super Rugby season for South African teams, the Lions have been a ray of light in the darkness. They have played ridiculously attractive rugby while cracking a winning formula which they used to dish out rugby lessons to some of the tournament’s biggest names, including the seven-time champion Crusaders in last week’s quarter-final.
But, while the union has delivered a brand of rugby that is a thing of beauty (most of the time), it’s concerning that the Lions have continuously battled to fill their stadium.
After all, they have the fortune of calling Ellis Park home, the venue of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. Few will forget the stadium being buzzed by a Boeing 747, Joel Stransky’s timeless drop goal, or Nelson Mandela wearing the Bok No 6 jersey.
That was 21 years ago and Ellis Park has remained a happy hunting ground for the Springboks.
It is a fantastic stadium and, though they appear to be headed the right way on the field, the Lions’ biggest challenge is off the field. How will they get supporters to return to the stadium?
The problem is definitely not lack of support – just a quick flick through Twitter, or a Saturday jaunt to the local mall indicates that there is more than enough red and white to go around.
Yet Ellis Park has the second-worst attendance record this season, with an average crowd that barely exceeds 32 percent of the stadium’s capacity.
It seems that the main deterrents are transport, safety, ticket prices, and the fact that catching the game on HD from your couch, within reach of the fridge, is very convenient.
Many potential spectators shy away from visiting Ellis Park because there is no secure parking. They also have to walk (run) the gauntlet to get to the stadium through a particularly unsavoury part of downtown Joburg, and increased ticket prices for this week’s semi-final probably haven’t helped.
While the revolution of the union has been admirable, these challenges must be solved to keep the fairy-tale alive.
Lower ticket prices would be a good place to start. Would it not benefit all concerned to fill the stadium by halving the ticket prices as opposed to having half the crowd at the current price-tag?
In terms of pulling a crowd, the ideas could range from simple to revolutionary.
For example, a simple idea would be to work in tandem with a service such as Uber – if every ticket included an Uber coupon, or a chartered shuttle, perhaps the transport issues would be solved.
Ramping up the creativity a tad – the union could tap into the spectator’s need to be entertained and book one of South Africa’s most popular bands or artists to perform at half-time, or after the final whistle.
Or how about running a “Show Your Pride” selfie campaign aimed at identifying the Lions’ biggest supporters, with the 10 best selfies taken in-stadium winning free tickets and a chance to win a car, or a holiday, at the end of the season?
And while the Lions are blazing a trial on the field of play, they may as well set a few trends in the stands – Super Bowl 50 featured a bespoke “stadium concierge” mobile app designed for the explicit purpose of making your stadium experience more convenient.
The app ushered you to your seat, pointed out shortest routes to the bathroom, facilitated the ordering, payment and delivery of food and highlighted the fastest way to get to your car.
Maybe this one is a few years away, but offering spectators free Wifi and an interactive experience would be a commendable first step.
Ellis Park is a magnificent Test match venue and it would be great if the same atmosphere greeted South Africa’s top Super Rugby team when they run out against the Highlanders this week.
The same creative thought that was applied to the Lions’ on-field revival must be applied to give the Ellis Park faithful that winning feeling.
A digital flyhalf, Juan has been a passionate rugby fan ever since the Boks won the 1995 World Cup on his birthday. Find him on Twitter @leftbacks