Crowds lag as Super Rugby looks to reconnect

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 17/06/2014
Empty seats
Getty Images
GHOST TOWN: Empty seats at Westpac Stadium have been a feature of the Hurricanes' home games this season.

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The Hurricanes are at the sharp end of a competition-wide malaise.

Average attendances have dropped 10 per cent across Super Rugby this season and television viewership in Australia and South Africa is also tracking down.

In Wellington, Westpac Stadium's yellow seats have been among the most visible in Super Rugby for the second year in a row, with an average of 10,114 attending six matches so far.

Hurricanes chief executive James Te Puni is hanging his hopes on a big turnout for the final home match of the regular season when the Crusaders visit Wellington in a few weeks.

But with only 10,334 showing up for the Hurricanes' last home match, an appealing showdown with the defending champion Chiefs, Wellington has become a tough gig.

Only 8000 showed up for the first home match against the Brumbies and even fewer for the Cheetahs.

A local derby with the Blues only just tipped past 11,000 and, as it stands, the 13,019 who watched a turgid loss to the Highlanders is the Hurricanes' biggest home crowd of the season. That despite the team playing largely attractive rugby and still in the hunt for the playoffs.

There are, of course, variables from year to year, such as the opposition and weather, but it's a similar story across New Zealand's five Super Rugby franchises. Attendances aren't plummeting, but nor are they trending upwards.

The Crusaders are the exception. The red-and-blacks have increased their average crowd this season to an impressive 15,460 filling AMI Stadium to near capacity (17,300) most weeks. Everyone else is hoping the big push of a tight playoff race will balance the books or better when the final three weeks of the regular season play out.

The Chiefs aren't far off last year's figures with two games in New Plymouth (10,888 and 10,740) bringing the average turnout in Hamilton down to 12,848 compared to 14,169 last year.

The Blues are in reasonable health with the Chiefs still to visit Eden Park, while the Highlanders crowds are surprisingly down in their roofed venue, from an average of 14,067 last year to 12,465, even with a bumper 21,305 against the Crusaders.

Television viewership on Sky TV in New Zealand doesn't help. In other words it remains strong, steady on last year so far and with the business end of the season set to provide a late spike.

But there are problems in Australia and South Africa. Across the Tasman crowds are down and Fox's audience has followed suit, while traditionally big crowds in the Republic are not translating into eyeballs for SuperSport this year.

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So what does it all mean?

Is interest in the soon-to-expand Super Rugby competition flagging?

What can stadiums and franchises do to get fans off the couch and back into stadiums?

And is there any hope for the Hurricanes?

In Sydney, Sanzar boss Greg Peters has been taking stock of the situation.

The former boss of the Hurricanes knows a thing or two about fickle fan bases. He suggests results hold the key in his former home town, but he also believes the fan experience at stadiums needs to go up a notch across the board.

He's adamant things will pick up on the home stretch and is hopeful overall crowds will be similar to last year once the beans are counted.

But Peters doesn't hide from the facts and figures. He is urging Super Rugby's stakeholders to evolve with a changing market place.

"From a match attendance there is no hiding from the fact our crowd numbers are down and there are some pockets of real concern," he said.

"Having said that, right across live sport it appears to be not an uncommon problem at the moment. The unions are doing a lot of work into what is the root cause and we are monitoring that very closely.

"Intuitively we believe people are shifting toward bigger events.

"For example in Australia if Man United play an A-League team at Aussie Stadium, that's a big event, people will go and it will be full. But it's the week-in week-out club events across all codes that seem to be battling a bit."

Though the television audience will always be important commercially, Peters sees attendance as crucial to the long-term health of the competition.

It was at the ground where fans became most invested in supporting a team and Super Rugby needed to invest in and engage with a young and tech-savvy fan base.

The usual factors were at play including ticket price, food, weather and results. But Peters said rugby needed to bring some of the "broadcasting experience" inside the ground.

"We'd love to see more connected stadiums than there are right now in terms of updating their facilities and putting in wifi networks," he said. "It allows you to create a different fan experience . . . I'm talking about using a second screen mobile device in the stadium . . . to be able to do that creates engagement."

Fans wanted live stats on their phone, the ability to order drinks and food, send messages to the big screen or friends inside the ground, use Twitter and Instagram in real time and even stream live coverage on their iPad.

The Sydney Cricket Ground is the latest in Australia set to go fully connected and it's understood Westpac Stadium is looking into the technology.

"That's where we are heading. In fact, that's where we are. Stadiums need to consider when redeveloping, and they are, but some momentum in that space would be good."

So too would a bigger push to engage fan bases on social media, something some were doing superbly, and others not so well.

Where things get tricky for Sanzar is it's not their job to drive strategies in each of the 15 unique markets in which the franchises operate.

Back in Wellington, Te Puni is hoping the Hurricanes can fully reconnect with their fans next year under new coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree.

Te Puni still believes coach Mark Hammett can go out with a bang by beating the Crusaders in front of a big crowd when Super Rugby resumes, then the Chiefs a week later in Hamilton, to reach the playoffs.

Whatever the case, the Hurricanes are already thinking about how to fill those empty yellow seats next season.

- The Dominion Post

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