Rugby blind to what fans want

Gavin Rich

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”.

- Gavin Rich

Let's chat

  • Willem

    Not sure in what world the rugby administrators live.
    Pom-pom girls add no value to the experience of going to the stadium. To be honest they are a nuisance. In the old days clubs and schools got exposure by playing curtain raisers and this was how many people’s interest in club and school rugby start. Today I do not have a clue about what is happening in club rugby because I never see them playing. Who knows, if I see a good club game before the next Super 15 game I might become interested again.
    The next boat they are going to miss is TV exposure. As Netflix and similar networks become more common people are giving up their DSTV subscriptions which are seriously overpriced. Once people do not see the games on TV anymore they will lose all interest. Have the games been available to more people to watch the interest would have been much bigger.
    And then of course there are the ticket prices at games which make it impossible for a family to attend. Not only the ticked prices, but also the restriction on taking food into the stadiums.
    If one looks at test rugby the majority of spectators are people who are sponsored by business and only go to the games because they get free tickets. It will be interesting to see how many of the spectators at a big game actually paid for their own tickets.
    Just a final question: How does it make sense for a bankrupt union to go and prepare for the Curry Cub in France?

    • Barry Smith

      All spot on… how indeed can a bust Union justify a trip to France. You Kind of understand why they are bust! They are one of the older Unions in world rugby, supporters deserve better!

  • Bruce Kokkinn

    The problem of popularizing the sport once more should focus on three main aspects:
    1. Too much rugby – TV control – focus on club and currie cup games rather than the hack Super Rugby
    2. The rules of Union need to be revised to let the refs have less discretion and more clarity for the average rugbyite, letting the game flow with fewer stoppages.
    3. Fewer Unions and Administrators.

  • Nick

    All true, except for the fact that it seems a bit sloppy that none of the media present at the puma’s practice could rustle up a Spanish translator to communicate with the Argentinians. How hard can that be?

    • Greg Shark

      from available info, it is very hard…. to much like hard work!

  • Chuck

    I can’t agree more with Willem,he really hit the nail on the head.

  • Zee

    Gavin, I cannot agree more.

    Rugby is giving us the bare minimum when it comes to providing off field entertainment & pre-match hype.

    The pressers that are offered are boring & uninteresting.

    We should take a leaf out of the US sports industry, where entertainment reigns supreme. There is loyalty from the fan base because they feel invested in the product.

    Insights into players, analysis of tactics, there is so much more than just ‘the’ game.

    English Premier League football has the same appeal.

    Adding off the field value promulgates appeal which drives up revenue. People will be more interested in the sub plots of the game. Broadcasters will be queuing for content.

    Press conferences often follow the same mundane cycle. Rassie at least offers his thoughts which provides food for thought. Other previous Bok coaches literally cut & paste their same ‘Side is on the up, we didn’t get the bounce of the ball etc.’

    We need more from the industry.

    An off center example of entertainment would be the Ashwin-Mallet-Naas saga. Instead of it being a legal issue where people are being suspended etc., why weren’t they put on the same panel the next week, audiences would be so keen on seeing what unfolds the next week.

    I love the sport but I am disgusted by what we are offered. It’s a travesty & that’s why I refuse to spend a cent on going to the stadium to see my favourite team play. As a WP/Stormers supporter I feel betrayed.

    • OldGitEd

      Zee, please don’t suggest we Americanise sport in SA. There is not enough space here to give you all the reasons, but providing canned laughter at the appropriate moment in a “comedy” so that the viewer is informed about humour and when to laugh is just a start.

      Then go and watch NFL, MLB and NBA games – TV – , not to mention the plethora of various world series competitions limited to US teams only, and get ready to be bored to death. That is if the insessant tour bus style commentary and the nonsense they talk doesn’t do you first.

  • John Comyn

    I’ll tell you one thing the administrators cannot get right is allocating big games to Durban. This applies to rugby and cricket. The attendances are abysmal. I’m not sure why but the days of family picnics and singing Kumbaya in the car park are long gone. The Super Rugby attendances must be the worst in the country. Take the game to where want to watch test matches live like Newlands and Ellis Park.

  • Greg Shark

    Must agree with Willem and Bruce….. the game has become very complicated leading to poor officiating and often perceived bias of the game officials – its taken the interest and fun out of spectating. Back ‘when’ we could take our own cool drink and a snack into the stadium, now days no cool drink or food into the grounds and you have to pay and arm and a leg to an authorized franchise. BUT it goes much further, its been the ‘big boss’ attitudes of the administrators ring the supporters and instructing what is best for them….man, who needs these over opinionated officials bossing us around? The ever exponentially increasing ticket, season ticket and box costs/prices with a decreasing quality of games….Currie Cup was such a great competition and now it has been devalued (was that the actual aim of super rugby) to watching the 3rd team play and very poorly at that….. no Boks play and the next best go to Japan and so miss CC. Then, Kings Park for instance, the internationals are not evenly spread around – when last did we get something worth watching in the Rugby Championships? We get Argentina year in and year out…enough of them….send us OZ or AB! SARU and unions need to do huge marketing exercises and speak to the supporters!

    • Smart shark

      Agree re Durban being allocated the less ‘popular’ international teams the past few years, when last did we have the Wallabies play in Durban? at least AB’s were a bit more recent. There appears to be far less advance advertising of test, we used to see lots of SA flags, Bok flags flying (not only around the stadium precinct). Also used to see people wearing Bok shirts on Friday’s and match days but they’ve become hideously expensive. On match days there used to be lots of vehicles going to game with with people waving flags out their windows adding to ‘gees’ of test match experience. Also remember some visiting teams entered KP stadium via north tunnel, walking past fans who got into stadium early. One such occasion there was an excellent curtain raiser, as Wallabies entered stadium a huge welcoming cheer reverberated throughout stadium.
      CC becoming devalued but would be great to see more top clubs or schools play curtain raisers. More parents/families would attend stadium school games and how about filling empty seats with learners from school boarding establishments ? Two top KZN schools played curtain raiser before Super 15 game earlier this year creating great vibe in stands with their war cries and band. Bring some of the great vibe from schools rugby into stadium and give young rugby players a chance to play in big stadium

  • Grecian Humba

    One place where the springboks will always get support is in Cape Town. They always get the support they need to, but end up disappointing us?

  • Barry Smith

    Whilst we all look forward to our weekend fix of rugby, the reality is that there is just too much on offer! If you’re not sure, ask your wife!
    Super Rugby needs to become Super 8 (premier division) and that will leave several weeks without a fix!

  • Wesley

    One thing from match day they sadly got rid or watered down was the B field braais and beer tents. Dont know much of other stadiums but the braais at Boet in PE were huge, with some Boks even smooging in the crowd after the game as recent as the 2006 French tour. And not with some media liaison doing PR. As some genuine guests of the braais around having a quick drink and couple of photos. Beers were relatively cheap (i was a student and found it affordable) and no one shot you for taking your mini sausages and boerie rolls in with you. Now at the state of the art white elephant you cant even sneak your biltong in your underpants – i tried at last years argie game only to have it confiscated – and before the game the beertents had no vibe with killer prices. Then afterward there was not much of a vibe either, with no proper outside lighting having you to drink in the dark with no fires allowed for a good old “bakkie braai”. Also, what about the curtain raisers? None played at any last few tests i have attended there. The stadium bowl is dead beforehand and everything is sanitized down to boring and mindless “entertainment”. Wont be paying 650bucks this year for a lazy show and 2 quick hours of something i can catch on tv.

    • Jan L

      100% Wesley, I agree on all the points you mentioned as well as Barry Smith’s 8-team SR suggestion. Since their ban on smoking inside the station (no problem with no smoking ON the station seating) I do not attend rugby matches. I do not expect anyone to agree with this, but it is one of the things which is keeping me away. Give me a place where I can quickly scatter off to have my little fix (without disturbing others with my smoking), pay attention to Wesley and Barry’s suggestion and, as another contributor suggested, give us some curtain raisers like the old days and you would see more of the likes of us at games.

  • SweetAz

    The problem is that SARU doesn’t get the bulk of its money from fans,-it comes from TV deals and sponsorships so it’s only when the Sponsors dry up and the TV people realize nobody is watching that they will change.

  • Herman Schroder?

    The only thing missing from this discussion is the pathetic state of our rugby these past few years, especially at test level and also at most of our SR Franchises. Winning teams drum up more bums on seats quicker than any other factor. So not only are the administrators myopic but the coaches and players don’t help matters with their continued lack of success which must affect the psyche of their long suffering supporters and especially when one factors in all the other problems raised on this site. Overall it is just a complete mess, well done SARU.

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