Monthly Archives: May 2015

John Feehan and the Pro12

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A recent interview with Pro12 head John Feehan, made a number of claims relating to the Pro12. We take a look at one of them, namely that “significantly more people attended the matches this season than last season”.

Unsurprisingly for an Irishman based in Dublin, his views are very much coloured by what is happening in his own geography.

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Glasgow’s success on the pitch this season has seen record numbers at Scottish grounds[1. All the data used to compile this article is taken directly from the Pro12 web site (or previous iterations of this web site).]. Significantly more people attended matches in Scotland – a 16% increase[2. The authors make no claim as to the voracity of this data.] on last season.

It was also a record for the Irish with 567,052 people attending Pro12 games .

However, things are very different in Italy. Putting aside the discussion on non-payment of €1.5m[3. There’s a lack of clarity on the exact amount involved. Some press reports quote FIR president Alfredo Gavazzi, claiming that “The (previous) €3million fee has been reduced to less than a third … it’s a huge victory”, whereas other press outlets claiming the figure is €1.5m] this past season has seen the second lowest attendance at Pro12 fixtures in Italy. In the first season of Italian representation in the league, over 83,000 people watched league games in Italy. In the 2014-15 season, almost 20,000 fewer people watched Pro12 games.

At this point, it may be a good idea to ask why John Feehan ignore these facts, or is it that he is simply unaware of the failure of Pro12 to grow the game in Italy?

Finally, let’s take a look at the Welsh clubs.

In the stands ….

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Pro12 attendance in Wales increased to is 353,248 – a growth of 22,151 on last season. A large chunk of this is down to the increased success of Judgement Day – which we’ve already covered elsewhere. This is a 7% increase on last season. However, it is actually less than two season’s ago when the total home attendances topped 359,000. From a Welsh perspective we think Mr Feehan is over-cooking the turkey somewhat.

Let’s look at how each club fared.

Cardiff Blues

Cardiff Blues

Despite the product on offer, despite the losses, despite the poor performances, Cardiff retained their title the best supported rugby club in Wales. That really is a remarkable fact. Hard work off the pitch in marketing the “Blues” brand seems to be paying off. Attendances are up when one would expect them to be down.

An average of 8,863 attended fixtures at CAP (and the double header at the Millennium Stadium[4. Double header attendances are split in two for analysis purposes.]). This represented an almost 10% increase on Pro12 attendances on last season. There is still some way to go to reach the heady days of 10,000+ as an average gate reported when the club played at the soccer stadium, but the overall trend us up from the 2010-11 season. Credit to Richard Holland and the staff at CAP for growing the popularity of the club. Selling a poor product is tough, and they’ve excelled in selling it better than before.

Fact check: So is this significantly more than last season? 10%? We say yes. 

Scarlets

Scarlets

The Scarlets average home crowd of 7,069 is the lowest in 10 years at the club. Despite a mediocre season in Llanelli, they remain some way ahead on the pitch of teams based in Cardiff and Newport. So why this dip in popularity?

Looking at the Scarlet’s performances across all competitions, they’ve had worse (or equally bad) seasons in the last 10 years – in particular the 2007-8 season (with only 5 wins at home that year) – but this season is an all time low.

Fact check: So have “significantly more people attended … matches this season”? Absolutely not. This season was not far short of disastrous for the Scarlets.

Ospreys

Ospreys

On the pitch, by some margin, the Ospreys remain the most successful Welsh club in the history of the Celtic League in all its guises. Indeed, the 2014-15 Pro12 season saw them undefeated at home. In the early years following the realignment of the professional game, the Ospreys were by some margin the best supported club in Wales. In the 2006-7 season, attendances for Pro12 games averaged at over 9,000, but since then – other than the 2012-13 season – those levels have not been reached. This season’s average of 8,398 is up just under 6% on last season, but again a 10%+ fall on the 2012-13 peak.

Fact check: So is this significantly more than last season? 6% is a fair rise, though the long term trend is still fairly flat. This is despite on-field success and must be a concern for the board in Swansea.

Newport Gwent Dragons

Newport Gwent Dragons

A Pro12 final position of 9th saw the Dragons finish above Cardiff Blues for the first time since 2004-5. A feel-good run of victories in the European Challenge Cup raised spirits at the club and this translated to an increase in gates. The club also finished 9th in the 2013-4 season, but last in the season before.

The Dragons won only five games at home in the Pro12 this season – pretty much par for the course in recent years.

For seven seasons, total Pro12 attendance hovered between the mid-40Ks to mid-50Ks level, but this season 85,614 souls enjoyed the Pro12 journey from the terraces in Newport. This is a 19% increase on last season.

Fact check: So is this significantly more than last season? Absolutely, it certainly is. 19% is a big increase for the club, though it is debatable whether performances in the Pro12 itself are behind this increase.

In conclusion …

Contrary to the view often expressed in the media, there is little evidence to suggest there is a direct correlation between winning form on the pitch, and attendance at Pro12 fixtures. Witness Cardiff’s 2012-13 season which saw only three home wins but an average gate of just shy of 9,000. Clearly other factors are at play which lie outside the scope of this analysis.

Turning to Mr Feehan’s comments, as you would expect, little effort seems to have been made to make a close examination of country-by-country trends, or even club-by-club trends.

Glasgow’s rise in Scotland has boosted interest from a very low level, but the SRU remains intransigent in the face of approaches to set up more pro-clubs with investors pressing for action. The blazers like to keep control and this is holding back the growth of the game. Finishing last in the Six Nations does not seem to have shaken this resolve.

John Feehan’s Irish sides continue to succeed in the Pro12. Connacht have enjoyed their most successful season ever.

But the facts elsewhere seem to have escaped Mr Feehan. Despite the Dragons’ increase in gates, Welsh rugby remains flat. Good work in Cardiff is offset by disaster in Llanelli and support in Swansea has been poor – despite continuing successes on the pitch.

And as for rugby in Italy, could the situation be any worse?

Perhaps Mr Feehan needs to look beyond his own borders and look at the Pro12 as a whole?

 

Notes:

European Competition Attendances

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As Europe’s rugby season draws to a close, this past weekend saw the first of the season’s finals played – the European Cup and Challenge Cup featured teams from France, England and Scotland. This season saw the demise of European Rugby Cup Ltd (or ERC), the company set up to run Europe’s club competitions, with nine equal shareholders represented on the Board of Directors: Rugby Football Union, Premiership Rugby, Fédération Française de Rugby, Ligue Nationale de Rugby, Irish Rugby Football Union, Scottish Rugby Union, Welsh Rugby Union, Regional Rugby Wales and Federazione Italiana Rugby. This season has been seen the first competitions organised by the new body European Professional Club Rugby (or EPCR).

A key component in revenues generated by professional sport is TV money and ERC’s poor performance in this area was one major reason why it was wound up. More on this to follow in subsequent blogs, but inevitably interested parties will also turn to attendance figures as a benchmark for how well the two competitions – the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup – have faired this season.

Challenge Cup attendances

First the good news. Total attendances in the Challenge Cup fell just short of the 400,000 mark – up by over a fifth from last season. Furthermore, the average attendance at fixtures also rose to its highest ever point.

However, this figures should come as no surprises having the participation of lesser rugby nations like Spain or Portugal. Furthermore, the presence of an extra Welsh club also boosted attendance figures.

Champions Cup attendances

The Champions Cup saw a reduction in participants. When the competition began in 1995-96, only 15 fixtures were played. In the following season this grew to 47, but then in subsequent years, boycott from English clubs resulted in a fluctuating fixture list. Finally, from 1998-99 to 2013-14, 79 fixtures were played, whereas this season, this was reduced to 67. Unsurprisingly, with this reduction in the number of fixtures, total attendance dipped to under 1m – the first time that has happened since the 2011-12 season.

Turning to average attendances, despite a 3% growth on last year’s average, EPCR will be disappointed that despite the supposed extra focus on quality, averages attendances did not surpass the peak in the 2008-9 season of 14,874. Interestingly, there seems to be a four-year cycle appearing in Champions Cup attendances with new peaks reached every four years. Perhaps this reflects an influence from a looming Rugby World Cup, though this is far from clear.

Breakdown by country

Analysing attendance by country is somewhat distorted if one includes data on knock out phase fixtures, as these are not guaranteed in any one geography every season. So in this section, I’m focussing merely on pool games, where there has been more parity between participants.

Apart from the fact that it’s probably not such a good idea to use such garish colours in a chart, at first glance, it seems there’s a limited amount we can learn from this chart. All countries suffered a fall in paying customers at the grounds.

Implications for Welsh rugby

But a closer look reveals something alarming for fans of Welsh rugby. Unsurprisingly, with a cut from three to two teams participating in the Champions Cup this season, there’s been a fall in attendance figures. But what a fall! Fewer people watched top European competition (and this is pool games only, remember) this season than at any time since the 1998-99 season. Only 46,892 attended Champions Cup pool fixtures – down from a peak of 126,811 in the 2008-9 season. That’s a fall of 73%.

Looking at the data in percentage terms, the effect is even more striking. Whilst the contribution of English and French fans has been steady, the increasing popularity of European competition in Ireland is clear to see. What is more striking however is the shrinking of the Welsh figure.

And finally ….

These trends raise a number of questions for Welsh rugby. Should we be worried about the drop of almost 80,000 in the attendance at European Champions rugby games in Wales? People will surely just watch Challenge Cup games instead, right? Subsequent blogs will address these questions, but perhaps a more fundamental question that needs to be answered is why Welsh rugby sacrificed a guaranteed place in Champions rugby? What did we gain for this sacrifice? Some may argue that our teams are not competitive in this competition, but the only way to get better is to play against the best. After all, Cardiff are one of only two teams to defeat Toulon in Europe in the last two years. Paying customers are attracted by quality – even the quality of the opposition. Without that exposure, our clubs are being robbed of revenue and the game in Wales will suffer. Finally, the best sporting competitions are comprised of participants any of whom can win on a given day. Cardiff indeed proved this two seasons ago. But with the huge disparity in TV deals signed between England, France and the Pro12, what can be done to arrest the transformation of the European Champions Cup into an Anglo-French competition?

Notes on the data used to compile this blog:
1. Attendances are missing from official records for the early seasons of the Challenge Cup which renders that data unsuitable for comparison purposes.

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