Where is everybody?

So the present theme / stick with which to beat Pro Rugby Wales is crowd levels. For example, the self proclaimed “National Newspaper of Wales” ran a back page story on why crowd levels were as poor as just over 5,000 for some games, but used a poll of just 3,000 votes for the basis of their story. Clearly, the irony of this was lost on the intellects running that paper into the ground, more so when you consider that was 3,000 votes and not 3,000 unique voters.

This story was run on the Friday before a weekend of European Club rugby, something that PRW fought for almost to the end of its existence last year. The four members are signatories and shareholders of the new competition and, in achieving this, won the war with Roger Lewis. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that the WM is not willing to support PRW in this competition but to produce, with such vulgar rigour, this piece on the Friday before Round 4 shows how its editor has nailed its colours to the Sinking Ship of the Jolly Roger.

That aside, absolute crowd numbers at all of the four teams are at a low ebb but are far from as relatively bad as many wish to make out. It is always pointed out that the Irish teams can attract significantly larger crowds than the Welsh teams and this is used as a stick to beat PRW. Those wielding the stick highlighted Ireland as the model to use for a Union run professional game. Those wielding the stick never mention how well that model is doing in Scotland.

At this point it is worth pausing to note who is wielding the stick. Well, in simple terms, it is those who have volunteered to be outside of the professional game in Wales yet who feel entitled to be within it. This core, basic, sense of entitlement can be simply traced back to 2003 when “regional rugby” was introduced. Despite there being no one single document in the public domain of what a Welsh Rugby Region is supposed to be (other than the WRU Articles of Association which note that PRW are Regions), there is a mass of disenfranchised individuals who seem to think that “proper regions” will somehow “represent” them.

Which takes us back to the comparison with Ireland. For starters, how can an area so small as South Wales be split geographically for “representation”? If you want to consider just how small the area of South Wales actually is then consider that Munster has a land mass (9,527 square miles) bigger than the whole of Wales (8,022 square miles). How can that be split further? To get from Newport to Cardiff is one train stop, to get from Swansea to Newport is under an hour by car. I’ve seen it suggested that Wales should be split by Compass point for “support” purposes but where would the line be drawn? For starters, there’s no private finance or infrastructure ready to support professional rugby in the North. Then we have the case of the Chap who lives in Newport, works in Cardiff but was born in Swansea. Who is he “represented” by? It’s ludicrous to think that Compass points are somehow representative.

To return to Ireland, it’s now time to turn to population base. If you consider four teams in South Wales share a catchment area of 2 million people then it must be noted that this is roughly the single catchment area for both Ulster and Leinster. In other words, there are lots more people available to pay for professional rugby in the areas which have higher attendances. All of this is before, of course, we consider that the direct competitors for PRW are Swansea City and Cardiff City who both regularly attract crowds well in excess of 18,000. The Irish provinces have no such winter professional team sport competition.

Therefore, in South Wales, we have a small population who, as we know, isn’t relatively financially well off. So when you consider the price of the ticket and that most of the home games are on free to air TV, it’s no wonder that crowds are low.

But none of that address the key issue of the product being poor, for it undoubtedly is. It should be of no surprise that it is so poor when PRW have been deliberately kept poor by the WRU for many years. Let us not forget that Lewis claimed that there was no more money that could be paid from the international game to its immediate supply chain. Again, those making the comparison with the Irish game, omit to mention the killer fact here that the IRFU spends significantly more on elite rugby than does the WRU.

In professional sport, the cause of the product being relatively poor is because of the standard of player employed and, in turn, that is caused by the finances available to pay the player. If you wish to continue the comparison with Ireland, look at the number of top Irish players playing outside of Ireland compared with the number of top Welsh players. For the sake of argument, let’s call it 1 (Sexton) versus well over a dozen. If PRW were able to condense those dozen players into the top three Welsh teams then it is obvious that they would be more successful. And then people would turn up to watch them…..

This lack of finance, however, isn’t all about the top dozen players in France and England. It’s also about the loss of quality mid-range players who are outside of Wales like Owen Williams, Ian Evans, Nicky Robinson, Dwayne Peel and many more. The experience of these players (not only their talents) would bring a huge boost of success to the Welsh teams.

So Lewis has created the perfect storm for Welsh rugby through his desire to pay off too early the stadium debt. He has drained the professional game of comparative finance from the international game and discouraged the benefactors from further investment. Let’s remember, he publicly claimed that if PRW did not sign to roll over his PA then he would see that they were no longer in business. This prevented them from being able to invest into their squads for many seasons.

We are told, by the disenfranchised, that the WRU would invest more into the pro game were they the owners of the pro game. Of course, there is no evidence for this at all whilst, to counter the argument, there is years of Roger Lewis driven evidence to note that investment into the pro game was not part of his desire.

So these are the ingredients to the argument: a small, vocal, minority of self decided disenfranchised folk with a sense of entitlement that is totally misplaced and, of course, is never driven by the desire to put their money where their mouth is. The pro game has passed them by as there is nothing that could be in place to entice them, along with more people than the present set up attracts, to become paying punters. They are collateral damage. They are irrelevant and small in number.

What the Western Mail should be focussing on, were it interested in journalistic standards over maintaining its “close” relationship with the WRU, is how the financial differences between Irish and Welsh rugby has driven the game to where it is today. The starvation of the professional game by the WRU, combined with the threat of preventing the PRW from trading, has forced the game into the quality of squads we presently have in Wales. And, frankly put, there is not one supporter of a PRW team who wouldn’t want those squads to be stronger.

Therefore, the simple answer to bringing in more paying supporters is to ensure that the teams are strong enough to be competitive, entertaining and, ultimately, to win. That will bring in more paying supporters, as history proves, but when this is combined with a competition which also attracts the floating supporter then the professional game will grow further. All of which, of course, means money. The four should be able to brand as they see fit, to chase new income streams as they see fit, to control their broadcast contracts and, ultimately, to choose their own competitions.

Only when all of that is in place – combined with the market rate for supply to Team Wales – will our four be successful. And only then will people be enticed away from their sofa and free to air TV to actually buy a ticket.

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