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Greed, Control and Arrogance: Super Rugby’s Decline

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Dave Griffith
Dave Griffith

Not that many years ago a young rugby player growing up in New Zealand would dream of playing for their province and beyond that the All Blacks. For those of us not good enough to have those dreams we supported our team. We watched the gifted players growing up in our area as they moved through the rugby grades. They represented us and we supported them through the good times and the bad. There was little movement of players between provinces. Job transfers or university study were the main reasons.

With the advent of professional rugby in1996 and the Rupert Murdoch sponsorship of the new Super 10 competition, rugby tried to have the best of both worlds. They amalgamated provinces together to form franchises. It got off to a flying start but now after 14 years the fan base is eroding. One of the most popular franchises the Hurricanes were recently lamenting that their season memberships that were 16,000 in the early days have now dropped to 7,000.
The crowd numbers that have turned up to the first two Hurricanes home games are 11,500 and 12,008 respectively. This is eclipsed by a single Phoenix finals match of 24,500. While the Hurricanes administration will be keen to see the back of the Phoenix for the season the local football team is signing off in style with 34,500 seats worth of Wellington Sports fans discretionary dollars.
But the Phoenix are not the reason for the steady decline of Super Rugby’s popularity with Wellington sports fans. The reason is very simple. Rugby administrators and their pay TV owners have taken 120 years of provincial tradition and replaced it with a professional circus. Now young rugby players growing up dream of a professional contract first and if they play for their home province it is an added bonus.
How are fans supposed to get right in behind their team when many of the players they have watched grow and develop are lining up with the opposition? How are Hurricanes fans supposed to feel when their team is confronted by homegrown talent like Zac Guildford, Robbie Fruean, Thomas Waldrom, Israel Dagg and Serge Lilo? In the days when the National Provincial Championship was top dog it was easy. It was us against them. Now it is this year’s assortment against another franchises assortment.
It is not just about the players though it is simple economics of supply and demand. As soon as pay TV became the bankrollers of Southern Hemisphere rugby it was only going to go one way – Expansion. With a growing assortment of sports channels to fill with content, the owners have gone from Super 10 to 12 to 14 to 15. Where it will end I don’t know but I guarantee it will be deep in the heart of overkill country. This is the sporting equivalent of a third world country just printing money to pay its bills.
In the early days of Super rugby there was a closer match to the provincial rivalries of old. Wellington, Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, Waikato. Overseas we had the familiar foes of Queensland, New South Wales and Natal from All Blacks tours past. But the marketing guru’s decreed that the geographical identifiers had to be phased out leaving us with just a franchise name. It might be good for marketing but a franchise with little history and an ever changing cast of players is harder to back for many sports followers.
We can’t blame professionalism either. Football has long worked on the model of club based teams with a lineup of players that changed over time as they were bought and sold. Fans support a team and it is quite conceivable that a club could have only a handful of players from its local area. This works. Rugby has tried to have it both ways. Trading on provincial loyalties while using the draft system to even out the talent pool. Every season franchises are only allowed to protect a core squad while the rest are up for grabs elsewhere. The Rugby Union wants to retain control and have the top players in action regardless of who they are playing for. The problem is that loyal fans are finding it hard to turn up to each home game when there is an increasingly meaningless fixture list and the opposition ranks are teeming with players they know and love from their home territory.    
It is undeniable that the rugby being played so far this Super 14 season is freer flowing than last years kick fest. But unless there is a return to the basic foundations of the game then there is little for fans to get excited about. The NZFRU might be delighted with still having the players locked into central contracts, and News Ltd will be happy that their sports channel schedule is filled up with rugby product. But us ordinary fans with limited dollars to spend will just pick and choose what we go to see and half empty stadiums at best will be the order of the day.
In any relationship where one party is getting what it wants but ignores the needs and desires of the other party it will end with one party exiting the relationship. The message to the Rugby Union is simple - stop treating us like dirt and stop taking us for granted and chasing what you and your News Ltd owners want. Carry on with your arrogant behaviour and you will wake up one day and find us gone. Read the warning signs before it is too late – the fans want quality not quantity.  

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