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.