As a lifelong Liverpool fan, one of the club’s greatest nights, and one of my happiest memories of being a supporter of the team, occurred in Istanbul.
Even if you only have a passing interest in football, you know that in 2005, Liverpool famously came from 3-0 down at halftime at the Ataturk Stadium to beat AC Milan on penalties and win their fifth Champions League title.
If you’re a Manchester United fan, the city of Barcelona might be your enduring memory of one of the Red Devils’ greatest moments. Two injury-time goals to beat Bayern Munich for the Champions League title in 1999 is still considered one of the greatest nights in that club’s storied history.
In rugby this year, the European Champions Cup final took place in Bilbao, Spain and featured Leinster from Ireland and Racing 92 from France in the showpiece. Next year the final is set for Newcastle where St James’ Park will host it, regardless of the participants.
The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings could clash in next year’s PRO 14 final and, if they do, the decider won’t be in Bloemfontein or Port Elizabeth. It will take place at Celtic Park in Glasgow.
The venues for the 2019 Champions League final (Madrid), the Europa League final (Baku) and NFL’s Super Bowl (Atlanta) are all set. In fact, the final venues are also decided for 2020 in those three competitions.
Yet Super Rugby, the flagship of southern hemisphere club rugby, hadn’t determined the venue for the 2018 final until Saturday.
Three days ago we learned that it would take place in Christchurch, between the Crusaders and Lions. Three days?
That means that SANZAAR, various broadcasters and media outlets have less than a week to hype the event. Travel agents have had little time to secure packages and sports travel companies, who would block-book tickets and then sell them to interested travelling fans, have had no such luxury. There won’t be more than a handful of travelling Lions fans in the stands.
Sure, the Crusaders have earned the right under the current structure to host the final, but that’s precisely the problem. The competition treats its flagship match like any other fixture.
It’s been well documented that the tournament is ailing and that officials and broadcasters are looking for ways to make it more appealing. A good start would be fixing the final venue and creating an ‘experience’ around attending the final.
Super Rugby is a geographically sprawled tournament anyway, which is makes it unique and challenging. But because of that, selecting a final venue should not be constrained either.
Given that matches happen from Buenos Aires to Tokyo and many places in between during the regular season, the final doesn’t even have to take place in the southern hemisphere every year.
If SANZAAR really wanted to boost the competition, the Crusaders could be ‘hosting’ the Lions at Twickenham, or the Stade de France this weekend, where there is guaranteed to be a much larger crowd than at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch.
Auckland, Sydney, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Cape Town and Tokyo could all be venues for the final. There are no real restrictions, especially if the venue is settled two years in advance.
Fans, regardless of their allegiance, could decide months and years before that they would like to make the trip of a lifetime to watch the Super Rugby final at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City or the Velodrome in Marseille. Of course they might not see their own team, but how many Lions fans have time to organise a trip to New Zealand in six days to watch this year’s final anyway?
If organisers allowed for two weeks between the semis and the final there would be time for those hardcore fans to buy from a set number of tickets retained by SANZAAR for direct sales to club members.
This would have the added bonus of encouraging fans to become registered supporters of their teams, with preference for final tickets given to season-ticket holders.
Given the dwindling crowds in regular season games, it’s worth attempting something different. It would be an incentive to become a season ticket holder, knowing that if your team made the final, and it happened to be in Paris, or Madrid, you could plan a trip and are guaranteed access to the game.
To survive in a tough market, Super Rugby needs to think differently because the reality is that the image of the tournament is as important as its quality.
And the image of a rickety AMI Stadium with 18000 fans on a cold and wet South Island evening, for supposedly the game of the year, is not a good one.