Interest in the Springbok Test against Argentina in Durban seems to be within the current range of general apathy towards rugby.
There are many reasons for this, but one of them – the arrogance of the people involved in rugby who believe the sport is important enough to sell itself – was highlighted at the start of the build-up week.
A group of us, including two television crews, waited through a long Pumas training session to get the soundbytes and interview pieces needed, only to be presented by the Argentina management with players who could only speak Spanish.
We asked politely if perhaps someone could translate for us but without success. For goodness sake, it is hard enough to drum up interest in a game involving Argentina without the Pumas management refusing to promote the game.
Let’s not pick on Argentina because the assumption that the sport will somehow just promote itself is a worldwide phenomenon, and is particularly prevalent in South Africa, where for too long the provinces and the national administration were able to rely on the almost religious fervour of what a former CEO once referred to as “the guaranteed market”.
Those days are gone and the rugby chiefs are aware of it but, frankly, their attempts to confront the problem are inept and amateurish. You don’t make rugby matchdays more marketable by increasing the number of cheerleaders, emphasising the festival vibe of the beer garden, or decreasing the prices of tickets for school kids, pensioners and people in wheelchairs.
Don’t get me wrong, those innovations are good. But it is not going to put bums on seats. Bums will only start filling seats when rugby becomes interesting and for that fans need heroes that they can relate to and stories that will enthrall them.
There are many opinions in the media and on social media and I can well recall a colleague of mine once trying to get himself promoted by arguing that he had “the most opinions”. Sorry, but opinions have to be based on something, such as the access to the people involved in the sport so that they carry authority. Otherwise a multitude of opinions is no more appealing than a multitude of body odours.
Stories need to be told and it perplexes me that on the eve of his debut there is so little material available on who Damian Willemse really is.
Perhaps I missed it, but I can’t recall Willemse once being put in front of the Cape media by the Stormers during this past Super Rugby season. Press conferences are overly sanitised and aren’t a vehicle to properly get to know a player, but you’d think that, seeing as though he’s is so often described as the future of the union, there’d at least be a drive to market Willemse and give the Cape public a chance to identify with him.
Yes, I understand that the coaches probably feel the need to protect the young players. But here is the thing – just as if you do mountain-biking you know there is a risk of getting hurt, so there should be an understanding that if you are involved in professional sport there is an obligation to take the risks required to market the sport successfully.
The same goes for coaches. If all you can do is grunt during press conferences, go find yourself another way of earning a living. Eddie Jones is not everyone’s cup of tea, but one thing the England coach does do is market the game.
What made the recent series against England so edgy for Bok fans is that it was “Eddie’s England”. No-one really made the same fuss in 2012 when England were coached by the likeable but dour Stuart Lancaster.
Aussies of course see the need to sell the game more because the challenges South Africa face now are ones they’ve been facing forever. They know rugby union isn’t a national sport, but before the modern era of sanitised media speak, they had characters, such as David Campese, who helped drive the interest.
Bob Dwyer once said that there was a wire loose somewhere between Campese’s brain and his mouth, but Campo helped sell the sport in that country – and not just through his on-field deeds. Characters, even flawed characters, make sport more interesting and add to the hype. Hype is often seen as a negative by coaches, but it is good thing if rugby is going to survive.
Turning sportsmen into robots so that you minimise risk to the brand does the opposite of what is intended. So does the tendency to turn media liaison people into media prevention officers. Scheduling team announcement press conferences for as late in the week as possible, and for times where both team announcements coincide, is just plain idiocy from a marketing perspective.
If rugby administrators don’t wake up to the need for innovative marketing and handling of the modern media challenges, ones that focus on the need to make the sport interesting again, then rugby will just continue on its current slide to irrelevance and stadium patrons might in time get issued with an instruction: “Will the last person to leave Kings Park please turn off the lights”.