Posted 13 August 2010 - 12:59 PM
Page XIII Editorial – First published in Rugby League World Issue 349 (May 2010)
Since its inception, the Magic Weekend has never exactly ‘packed em in’ either in its original venue in Cardiff or now at Murrayfield. It’s a hard sell at the best of times, getting cash-strapped supporters to up sticks and spend a whole weekend away to watch the game. The Challenge Cup final at Wembley rarely sells out these days, despite its history and status, so a random round of Super League fixtures plonked in a city several hundred miles away from the nearest participating team is always going to struggle.
When the idea was first mooted of a weekend of Rugby League action all taking place in a single venue somewhere beyond the usual geographical confines, I was all in favour of it. I had visions of a sporting Glastonbury. Not so much the rolling around in mud, sleeping in a tent in a field dotted with cow dung and experimenting with mind expanding substances which characterises the musical festival, but the concept of supporters from far and wide congregating together and sampling the delights of matches they might otherwise never see, while waiting for their own club to take the field for their own personal ‘headliner’.
Yet it hasn’t really turned out like that.
The 100,000 or so tickets for Glastonbury sell out within minutes every year, seemingly regardless of which acts are performing and despite the place resembling a mud pit more often than not. In contrast, the Magic Weekend seems to have become more of an opportunity for a weekend off amongst regular supporters who decide to stay at home rather than make the trip to see all seven matches in a single venue. At best, and only if you add the numbers up from both days of the weekend and count them separately (ie 30,000 plus 30,000 = 60,000) does the Magic attendance come anywhere near that of a ‘normal’ round. The reality is probably that it attracts about half the number, if you assume the majority of the 30,000 on the first day are also there for the second.
So why bother?
I applaud the RFL for its perseverance. They are often criticised for dumping new innovations before they have had time to bed in and become established as part of the Rugby League furniture, but with the Magic Weekend in its current form I can’t help feeling they are flogging a dead horse.
Sure, for those who do make the trip, Edinburgh has much to recommend it, but there’s little evidence of an upsurge in interest in Rugby League in the city before, during or after it takes place. It is a great opportunity for the local hoteliers and hostelries to make a quick profit on the back of a travelling army from the south, but ultimately, what does Rugby League get out of it?
When we canvassed supporter opinion on the matter for the magazine, only 7% said the Magic Weekend should remain in Edinburgh. However, only 7% want to see it scrapped altogether, while a massive 86% want it moved elsewhere.
RLW columnist and BBC commentator Dave Woods makes the argument for Manchester. It might seem a little insular moving the event there, but it would certainly make it more accessible and affordable to the vast majority of those who watch Super League games on a week in, week out basis and might just persuade them to stop giving the Magic Weekend fixtures a miss in future.
There’s also the tantalising possibility of using it as a publicity-grabbing launchpad for the start of the season, instead of the haphazard whimper we have at present. Imagine this: at the Super League Grand Final, the match ball is ceremoniously carried from the field at the end of play. At the start of the following season, it is brought back once more to Old Trafford, where last season’s Champions use it to kick off the first game of seven taking place that weekend in this iconic venue, in Round One of the new season. Perfect symmetry.
Perhaps that’s a little fanciful, and fraught with organisational difficulties. Despite this being a ‘summer’ game, we kick off in the depths of winter and it might be difficult to persuade either Manchester Utd or Manchester City, at what is the business end of the football season, to give up their pitches for a full weekend of hammering from fourteen teams of Rugby League players.
The event would also lose some of its, ahem, ‘Magic’as an opportunity to visit somewhere further afield to watch the game. Despite concerns that supporters who have made the trips to Cardiff and Edinburgh up to now have been getting ripped off by local businesses who see them as a once a year cash cow to be milked as thoroughly as possible, it can still be a lot of fun going on an away day like this to see your team play.
How about this for an alternative. Go back to the future and resurrect Super League’s original ‘on the road’ concept to replace the Magic Weekend. For a couple of seasons in the early years of Super League, each club would play one game in a venue earmarked for potential Rugby League development. It meant trips to places as exotic as Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leicester and Northampton, but without the organisational burden of planning a whole round of matches in one place over one weekend.
I’d make one significant change. Instead of spreading matches around various somewhat random locations, schedule them all to take place in the same venue on different weekends throughout the season.
If the RFL want to use Super League matches as a vehicle for building interest in the game in a new area, then it can be done more effectively. Forget the ‘hit and run’ organisational headache of a ‘Magic Weekend’. Save the money that is spent hiring a super-sized venue and the rest of the trimmings needed to stage the current bloated event. Use it instead to promote a series of games in a chosen area (which could still be Edinburgh) and get the locals themselves used to turning out on a regular basis to watch, rather than wondering what the hell is going on one weekend per year when their city centre is filled with tourists wearing strange and colourful garb attending an event they know nothing about.
It would provide a massive boost to activists toiling away at the grassroots to have Super League clubs and their players in town up to seven times a year giving them a helping hand with training and other promotional activities.
If you’re going to the Magic Weekend, have a great time. However, let’s not be afraid to consider alternatives that might be of greater long term benefit to Rugby League.