There are many different reasons as to why an individual chooses to “support” a sports team, ranging from location / parental influence / a favourite player / they like the kit. In the Welsh media at the moment there seems to be a desire to show that the popularity of soccer, plus having two top flight soccer teams, will somehow negatively affect the support of our professional rugby game.
But will it? Is soccer the biggest danger to support at professional level or could it be something else? For me, it is rugby’s ability to eat itself that is a greater danger.
Soccer has always been popular in South Wales and it is pretty clear now that it is the most popular team sport in Wales for support and player numbers. And I think that it has been for some time, well before Swansea entered the Premiership. With the wall to wall media coverage of the sport and the well known wages on offer, it has always been the choice of sport for most youngsters in Wales. Having Cardiff City in the Premiership won’t affect that.
Rugby will always have its place in Welsh society, especially outside of the cities of Cardiff and Swansea, but that is no reason for it to be lazy. It faces increases challenges from all leisure activities, not just soccer, in its race for customers so it has to offer something at the professional (not international) level to get people through the door. This leads us to the question of why anybody should support (by that I mean pay for tickets) any of the four professional rugby teams in Wales.
Our friends in the media would have us believe that support should follow “regional lines”. In other words, if you live in Bridgend or follow Bridgend RFC then you “should” be an Ospreys supporter too. If you live in Pontypool then it is the Dragons for you and so on. For me, this is an utterly nonsense argument that ignores freedom of choice, ignores the fact that South Wales is tiny geographically and is further confused by the ease of movement along the M4 corridor.
So, Mr Western Mail, what if our “supporter” in question is a 30 year old single lady who was born and raised in Pembrokeshire, went to University in Swansea, works in Cardiff and lives in Cwmbran. Which is her team? Ultimately, the answer is the same answer as it is for everybody else in Wales: her team is who she chooses her team to be. Where she lives, where she works, where she was born are all irrelevant as South Wales is too small to exclude any of the four teams from her support.
This is not the same in Ireland. Dublin to Belfast takes close to 2 hours, Dublin to Galway 3 hours, Munster is significantly bigger than the whole of Wales. These are major reason as to why looking at Ireland for a supporter led “regional model” is not a sensible thing to do. In this example, our 30 year old lady could finish work on a Friday evening in Cardiff and make any of the four home grounds by the BBC imposed kick off time of 7.05pm. She couldn’t do that in Ireland without a helicopter.
This is why the obsession with branding and the removal of “club names” is a total red herring argument in Welsh rugby. Each of the four should be free to brand themselves as they choose so that they can best maximise their income, rather than pander to some media led nonsense about support lines. If the Newport Gwent Dragons earn more sponsorship (and retail income, if that is what they think) by using that brand then media should respect that and use the proper name. Ditto the other three. The obvious example here is Cardiff. In terms of rugby heritage, that brand is so strong (if not for the other brand alignment of it being Wales’ capital city) that to dilute it would be (and has been) commercial suicide. At this point it is worth remembering that a good commercial sponsor is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. A retail punter is worth about £100.
Professional rugby is a bottom line driven venture that must be about maximising income. It is not a community based social inclusion project that is designed to “be available for all” and “exclude nobody”. We don’t have the geographical brands in Wales (because it is so bloody small) to be able to maximise income and maximise inclusion.
So how else can our four attract paying spectators through the gate? Well, I’d say that they were doing a pretty good job of it already when you consider their trading conditions. They are not at all in control of the product: they cannot control who they play against, they cannot control their fixture lists, they cannot control their broadcast contracts, they cannot control when their better home grown stars are available to play for them! Yet, three of them still average close to 8,000 crowds.
But do they get any praise for this from the Welsh press? No. Which is incredible in itself, but becomes understandable when you realise that the press will not rock the boat which causes the market conditions our four have to trade in.
So can more be done to attract support? Obviously, it can. The best way to do this is to be successful as supporters want to follow winners. It’s not about glory hunting, as such, but about wanting the support emotions to ultimately be happy. If we are to invest our time, money and emotions into our sports team then we must expect value in all three and this is how the Ospreys stole a march on the other three some years ago. Good players, “names” that the kids want to see play and be associated with, will attract supporters from wherever. It’s easy to get to the Liberty off the M4, which means that it is easy to get to from wherever in South Wales.
The problem from now on is not soccer taking away the existing support base but that support base not getting value from the investment of time, money and emotion. With belts being tightened and the “names” players leaving, what is the incentive to stay on supporting these teams? Why peg it to the grounds for these TV driven kick off times to see sub-standard players delivering poor quality rugby. It’s cheaper and easier to watch it at home.
This is how rugby could eat itself. With the talent drain from the professional sides negatively affecting the quality of play, with the knock on effect of our teams losing more often, then it is more and more likely that support will simply drain away to its sofa to watch the game. It won’t leave the game for soccer, but it will leave the game for the sofa.
And this won’t just be a problem for the four professional teams. As the WRU loses control over its top players when they move outside of Wales, the fitness levels of these players will be lower when entering the international season and results will suffer, as we know how much emphasis on fitness is key to Gatland’s (and Howley’s) way.
In other words, for the sake of the professional game as a whole and in order to keep the present level of support, this top level impasse over finances needs to be broken. The best Welsh players must play in Wales, top overseas players must be attracted and the fixture list amended, or it won’t be soccer killing rugby in Wales but it will be Roger Lewis doing it.