Pro rugby is bleeding

All this week’s revealing of the plummeting Super Rugby TV and stadium audiences did was confirm what most of us knew in our hearts was happening.

The discussion last week on a WhatsApp group I am part of comprising a lot of my rugby mates from UCT - most having played either 1st or 2nd team rugby after school and thus with an interest in the game - was about whether to go and watch WP play SWD at City Park or Bishops play Eaton on the Piley Rees. Super Rugby was not even on the menu!

According to AMPS, the percentage of the population interested in rugby has remained constant at around 19% since 2005. This is similar to cricket, with both sports a distant second to soccer which sits at a chunky 53%.

So given the growth in population, this has seen the number of people in SA that are interested in rugby grow from around 5 million in 2005 to 7.3 million people today. Yet Super Rugby TV numbers in that period have dropped 30%, and audience share on SuperSport has dropped 22%.

Attendance figures at stadiums are also on the slide, with only Newlands able to fill more than a half the stadium. Kings Park sits at 45%, Loftus Versfeld at 35%, Ellis Park at 32%, Free State Stadium at 17%, and Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium at 15%.

In 2005 we had 69 matches played as part of the Super 14. These days we get 125 matches as part of an 18-team Super Rugby series.

Quite clearly, we are in the process of killing the goose that lays the golden egg! Yes there is too much rugby, but perhaps more importantly, there is too much crap rugby!

It’s so easy to watch on TV, so when people are ditching that to head out to school, club and Currie Cup qualifying games, you know you have an issue with the product.

Being a club rugby man, and having spent this week commentating on a few games that were streamed live from the very well supported Independent Schools Rugby Festival hosted by Bishops, one gets the sense that the amateur game is on the up. Perhaps at the expense of the professional one?

Both school and club rugby have their issues - to my mind because they are trying to become more professional rather than embracing all that is good about the amateur game - but both seem purer and simpler than the politically polluted razzmatazz that comes with the professional game.

There is also that sense of tribalism based on being part of a likeminded community that is quite magnetic about the amateur game. Yes it can get out of hand, but mostly the inter-school and inter-club rivalry and banter is good humoured and based on years of tradition.

Getting to the game is simpler. Being at the game is simpler, safer, and much more kid-friendly. It’s normally pretty simple to get a burger and a beer. And you don’t feel like you are being ripped off.

One just gets the feeling that the professional game has fallen into a financial trap requiring governing bodies to write cheques the sport simply cannot cash. So now it’s all about chasing the filthy lucre - perhaps at the expense of not only the fans, but the game itself.

Tank Lanning is a former Western Province prop and vociferous tweeter from @frontrowgrunt.

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