Tony Smith: Stadium state not only reason for Crusaders' crowd figures dip
OPINION: Hamish Riach is only telling half the story about the Crusaders' disappointing Super Rugby semifinal crowd.
The Crusaders CEO – who has been relentlessly lobbying for a new covered stadium in Christchurch – insists people are fed up with the temporary AMI Stadium venue at Addington.
Riach's rave should be seen for what it is – a shot across the Christchurch City Council and Government's bows for a new stadium to be fast-tracked before the 2025 completion date.
Yes, Christchurch does need a new stadium. Eventually. When we can afford it and when the city's flooding issues are fixed other pressing infrastructural priorities are met.
And, yes, it would be nice if it had a roof.
But Riach is dreaming if he thinks the only reason people aren't going to the footy is makeshift state of the Addington ground.
Committed rugby fans are hardly likely to give it a swerve because the odd pole is blocking their view.
The "new" AMI Stadium is actually a better place to watch rugby at than the old edifice. It has more atmosphere, for a start.
Lancaster Park had become a dog of a place to watch football of any code. The stands were so far from the pitch you needed high-powered binoculars to spot the players – even big, burly props.
It would have been hugely embarrassing for the Crusaders franchise if last Saturday's game had been played at the old stadium – imagine 13,000 fans rattling around a 38,000-seat arena.
Plenty of canny Cantabrians were no doubt saving their money for a potential home final with most expecting the Hurricanes to tame the Lions.
But the Crusaders' desultory attendance was hardly an aberration.
The Lions – from a region with 8.4 million people – drew just 27,000 to the 62,000-seat Ellis Park for their semifinal against the most attack-minded team in the competition and 26,000 the week before for a quarterfinal derby with the Sharks.
Riach would be loath admit it – but there are other pertinent reasons why Super Rugby doesn't draw the capacity crowds of 20 years ago.
Some are beyond his control – the weather, for starters.
This has been the coldest, wettest winter in Canterbury for many years.
Why would floating fans venture out on a freezing July night when they can watch in the comfort of their own homes?
Besides, rugby sold its sovereignty to cable television 22 years ago and is paying at the turnstile.
Television technology is now so slick people get a better view from the couch. My Sky recording has only enhanced the couch-bound viewer's experience.
But there are other factors.
Some diehard rugby folk aren't big fans of the Super Rugby format.
Interest builds until the June international test series window when Super Rugby is mothballed for three weeks and spectator interest withers.
The dropoff factor has been even more pronounced this year due to the absorbing British and Irish Lions tour which gripped the nation for six weeks.
The All Blacks-Lions internationals were the first true tests seen in New Zealand for years.
Super Rugby has been an anticlimax by comparison – despite two cracking semifinals at the weekend.
What other serious sports competition in the world would take a three-week break with momentum building towards the playoffs?
What other self-respecting code would run a programme whereby a South African team can qualify as top seed for the playoffs without playing a New Zealand club?
Next year's format changes can't come soon enough, but are they too little and too late?
An ethereal figure once whispered to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come."
But would the Crusaders' crowd figures improve exponentially at a new, covered stadium beyond the first-season novelty value effect?
Marginally. Scores of fans say, anecdotally, they would go to more matches if it wasn't so cold at night. Bear in mind, too, that Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium is under cover, but it can still be perishingly cold inside.
Even with a covered stadium, would the Crusaders ever get back to the capacity crowds they experienced in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
Besides, how many people turn up to a sporting event because it's held at a five-star venue?
The Highlanders play their home games under the roof at Forsyth Barr – but hardly have the "full-house" sign up.
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