OPINION: The Wellington Phoenix football team has provided one of the sporting highlights of the past year. For the club to have made the A-League playoffs for the first time, and to have got within one match of the grand final, was an achievement all New Zealanders can be proud of. As Phoenix coach Ricki Herbert has noted, this has been a breakthrough season for the club. It also augurs well for the 2010-11 season.
Although the dream run ended on Saturday night, thanks partly to a handball goal by a Sydney player, the Phoenix's successful season helped to heighten public interest in football, as shown by the crowds of up to 33,000 that the team attracted. That interest is sure to be maintained, with the All Whites taking on Australia, for the first time in five years, in a friendly match in May.
Then in June all eyes will be on the football World Cup in South Africa, with New Zealand's qualification for this massive tournament being the other great football highlight for this nation. Given that Herbert coaches both the Phoenix and the All Whites, it was a travesty that he was not named coach of the year at the recent Halberg Awards, even though the Phoenix were yet to reach the finals when the awards were judged.
The upsurge of interest in football has led to speculation on the impact on rugby and other sporting codes. This is a particularly important issue after several seasons in which rugby union crowds have been disappointingly low. Broadcasting figures, though, clearly show that rugby is still the national sport, with several matches already this season attracting viewing audiences of more than 200,000, compared to the 50,000 armchair fans who tuned in to the Phoenix's playoff match against the Perth Glory.
What the current success of football has done, however, is spur rugby administrators into improving their own performance, especially in marketing their code and their Super 14 franchises. The Canterbury Rugby Football Union acknowledged that the high cost of tickets had been a disincentive to attend matches and dramatically slashed season ticket prices to draw more spectators, especially families. It has also allowed fans back on to the ground at the end of matches to meet the players.
If this marketing does attract more spectators, the code which might really be threatened by the rise of football could be rugby league, where the Warriors look set to struggle again this year.
The Phoenix success carries with it another lesson which rugby administrators should heed. A feature of their games is not just the healthy crowd sizes, but the boisterous atmosphere created by the team's "yellow fever" fans with their shouting and chanting. Aside from the mooloo cowbells in the Waikato and the crowd antics at the Wellington Rugby Sevens, there is no real equivalent in New Zealand rugby to the outbreak of yellow fever in Wellington. This is despite the horde of Barmy Army supporters showing the way by injecting excitement into rugby grounds during the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour.
Perhaps rugby unions should consider hiring students to form a core of noisy, chanting spectators and inspire others to join in. That way AMI stadium will host not just a rugby match but a festive celebration.
- The Press