3:40pm Tuesday 29th November 2011
IT’S one of the big talking points in Welsh rugby right now – the poor attendances at our four regional venues.
How can it be that over 60,000 flock into the Millennium Stadium before nine o'clock in the morning to watch Wales on the big screen for their World Cup semi-final yet weeks later barely a tenth of that number watch the four professional sides in action?
The Ospreys and the Scarlets have drawn crowds of little over 7,000 as vast areas of their newish stadia have remained unoccupied, Cardiff Blues 'attracted' less than 5,000 for their game against Aironi, the 26,000-capacity stadium seeming empty, while the Dragons' gate against Perpignan was a paltry 5,000 or so.
The regions can't hope to survive on gates like that and Ospreys chief Mike Cuddy, for one, has said he is at a loss to understand the reasons for such poor attendances.
I'll offer a few here: 1. A poor league involving the three Celtic nations plus Italy. Outside the Welsh derbies, and even they don't seem to attract full houses any more, with the greatest respect what appeal do teams like Connacht, Glasgow and Aironi have?
Are they going to tempt fans to leave their homes in the depths of winter to sit out in cold stadia watching with avid interest? Hardly.
2. Television. This follows on from the first point. Not only are some of the teams involved in what is now called the RaboDirect Pro 12 League unattractive, coming from countries like Scotland and Italy who are the back markers in the Six Nations, almost all the matches are shown live on TV anyway.
How many are going to dig deep into their pockets when there are so many other demands on their money to watch mediocre teams or worse when the games are live on television?
And it's pointless trying to get them off the TV somehow or other because the regions desperately need the money that television companies provide in return for showing the matches.
3. Top players missing. This is an increasing problem and rugby is rapidly becoming like cricket where the leading players rarely appear for their domestic teams.
It's particularly prevalent here where the Wales management have secured a deal with the regions whereby they have the players they want 13 days before an international when the IRB requirement is for six and when there is an agreement for Wales to play 13 internationals a year.
So how often, for example, are Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and Luke Charteris going to play for the Dragons when the fans want to see them after their World Cup heroics? Precious little is the answer, in which case supporters who buy season tickets are going to feel short changed and may not renew them.
4. Regional rugby still not accepted. There remains a sizeable number who feel disenfranchised, cut off since the introduction of regional rugby and though that happened back in 2003 old habits die hard and some still hanker for a return of club rugby.
How many people from Pontypridd travel down to watch Cardiff Blues, for example, which is supposed to be their team at professional level? Precious few. How many from, say, Ebbw Vale bother to turn up at Rodney Parade to watch the Dragons? Not many.
5. New stadia. They may look good, they may have all the facilities, but they are out of town involving transport difficulties and drink and drive issues, they are soulless and fans are often sat too far away from the action, often reduced to watching it on the big screen in the grounds when they have paid to get in. Little wonder, then, that they stay at home and watch it on TV.
6. The recession. Times are hard, and rugby can't be insulated from the effects. It costs a fair bit to watch rugby these days and when a father wants to take a child or two even more. Many therefore decide to watch the national team instead so have nothing left for the regional game while others simply can't afford it.
All the above is relevant and if it is the glass half empty scenario what can be done to reduce this dramatic decline?
For a start better marketing would help. Ireland is probably even harder hit than Wales by the recession yet leading teams like Leinster and Munster can draw 26,000 fans to Limerick and 18,000 to the RDS ground in Dublin for their domestic games and when they face one another, even in the league, 48,000 to the Aviva Stadium.
They have done it by shrewd marketing, by appealing to familes, by reducing tickets prices or introducing special deals.
And efforts could be made to make a match day or night more than just a rugby event by laying on some entertainment pre-match and promoting it.
The situation in Wales is alarming. On the one hand we all hail the revival of the national team, their performances in the World Cup and the arrival of some cracking young players, but below that level all is definitely not very well.
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