Super Rugby faces empty stadiums

Elton Jantjies. Picture: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images
Elton Jantjies. Picture: Johan Rynners/Gallo Images

Calls for a series format shakeup come in the wake of a reduction in TV viewership and Newlands being the only local venue to attract more than 50% capacity

Empty stadiums at this year’s Super Rugby matches and declining television audiences tell a story of sad decline.

Spectator attendance statistics that City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, obtained from the SA Rugby Union (Saru) paint a particularly bleak picture.

The Nelson Mandela Stadium in the Bay was only 15% full during Super Rugby matches, with an average of 6 914 spectators tallied per match.

Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein was only 17% full, with an average spectator attendance of 7 780.

Cape Town’s Newlands Stadium was the only local venue that was more than 50% full (52%, with an average spectator tally of 26 992).

Newlands is followed by Kings Park (45%, 23 591), Loftus Versfeld (35%, 17 921) and Ellis Park (32%, 19 808), although the capacity of 62 567 at Ellis Park is higher than that of the other stadiums.

Rugby governing body Sanzaar’s television audience figures make for equally dismal reading. With 3 816 903 fewer viewers, the SuperSport channel showed the biggest decline in television audience out of South Africa, Australia (Fox Sports) and New Zealand (Sky Sports).

This despite the fact that more matches are being played this year after Super Rugby was expanded from 15 to 18 teams. Sanzaar’s statistics compare round nine of Super Rugby in 2012 with round nine in 2016.

“SuperSport has an excellent relationship with Sanzaar and has confidence in the process of reviewing Super Rugby’s structures and format, which is currently under way,” said Clinton van den Berg, SuperSport’s communications manager.

At a recent meeting with Sanzaar and other commercial partners, SuperSport was afforded the opportunity to make inputs on the Super Rugby series which it regards as confidential.

It has, however, confirmed that it is working alongside Sanzaar in developing structures.

Only 419 336 spectators attended local Super Rugby matches before the series was interrupted by the Irish tour – the worst attendance figure in years, and 145 161 lower than the 2012 figure.

The decline in supporters attending matches was recently cited by, among others, Barend van Graan, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Blue Bulls, as a leading reason why the coffers of rugby unions are becoming increasingly depleted.

Two CEOs of local Super Rugby franchises, who asked to remain anonymous, said there was simply too much rugby being played these days.

“The economy also pinches, the majority of big names are playing their rugby overseas and even transformation objectives have an influence on the decline in spectators,” said one.

According to Saru’s yearbook, 280 of South Africa’s best players were earning salaries overseas at the end of 2015.

After this year’s Super Rugby series, another 47 players will be added to that list – including top players such as Marcell Coetzee, Franco Mostert, Vincent Koch, Marcel van der Merwe, JP Pietersen, Nic Groom, Schalk Burger, Lappies Labuschagne and Derick Minnie.

“You have to do a lot more to get people into stadiums these days – like inviting musicians to perform after matches – but even that does not really work,” said the CEO.

“It is cheaper and more convenient to watch rugby on the television.”

According to the second CEO, the good support at New Zealand derbies is an indication that Super Rugby is still a good product.

“But the format of this year’s Super Rugby series has shortcomings and is too stretched out. People want to see how our teams do in the league phases in New Zealand, for example.

“Supporters also want more local derbies. Local derbies are really popular, although they do not fill the stadium out the way they used to in the old days,” he said.

“Sanzaar does have a special committee that will discuss the structure and format of Super Rugby again in September. I predict there will be a number of changes and renewal going forward.”

A spokesperson for Saru told Rapport that the reduced attendance at local matches should be a cause for concern for everyone involved in South African rugby.

Jurie Roux, Saru’s CEO, admitted that local unions faced major financial challenges at all levels.

Asked if it was not time for South Africa to consider reducing the number of professional teams, Roux said: “That is a question for the collective, not an individual.”

Although Rapport could not obtain attendance figures for the Currie Cup series, they are equally troubling.

No sponsor could be found, although it appears as if Nashua will sponsor the Premier League of the competition, which is steeped in tradition.

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