I spoke recently with a former player who retired from the game not too long ago, who said three words that have stuck with me ever since that conversation: “scarcity creates demand”.
It’s a short phrase that sums up the mess rugby league is putting itself in with the Super 8s. It was pointed out to me that in the NFL, there’s so few opportunities to play a rival that when you do eventually meet, the demand is so high that sell-outs are virtually guaranteed.
But in our sport, there’s so little demand due to see so many fixtures, fans are beginning to vote with their feet. And as the season ticks on, it’s becoming more and more noticeable.
Thursday night’s game at Wakefield illustrated the story well. 6,701 watched Hull win at Belle Vue back in April on a Sunday afternoon – last night, there was just over half that (3,413) watching. A fair chunk of that near-3,300 absence will have been down to the Thursday scheduling of course, but there are other mitigating factors too.
There are other fixtures which prove the point, too. There were over 15,000 people watching Warrington play Widnes in the first derby between the two sides earlier this year – by the time September and the fourth meeting of the sides in just five months occurred, the crowd had dropped by nearly 5,000 people.
Wigan and St Helens were made to play each other twice within a month earlier this year: both on Friday nights. The first game attracted a crowd of over 20,000 people – the second saw only 15,265 come through the turnstiles. Fans, clubs and administrators don’t know their final seven fixtures until the end of July, which creates a laughable mess for the game that it can’t do anything but get itself into.
Here’s a question: who is going to be held accountable for these damning, damaging and, quite frankly embarrassing drops in crowd figures as the game continues to toil in this convoluted league structure?
Four or five Wigan-Saints, Warrington-Widnes and even Hull derby matches every year is nothing but overkill. Imagine if Wigan fans only got to see their side play Saints twice a year. The demand would be through the roof. And if those high-intensity, big-name games are driving fans away, imagine what every other regular fixture’s attendance looks like.
The other big downside of too many games and too many meetings between sides is that players look fatigued as hell. Games are becoming increasingly difficult to watch as players push themselves to the limit in seasons that are lasting 10, sometimes 11 months if you play international rugby: all of which is still yet to come for so many of our domestic-based players.
How will England stand a viable chance in the World Cup when the players are being forced through as many as 35 games depending on how far their side progresses in all the relevant competitions? Too many games are making fans bored, are exerting too much pressure on players and are slowly killing the sport.
Fewer games would also mean more opportunities to play international rugby – which is the pinnacle of any sport. As a supposed minority sport we should be planning as many matches at the highest level to give the sport a chance to grow – but instead, we’re lumbered with a league season that is too long and which many people can’t wait to see end by the time the third or fourth week of the Super 8s comes around. Earlier this year I devised a league system which I thought had its merits – looking back at it now, it seems more viable than ever.
What does all of this mean? Essentially, that the game is at a crucial crossroads – although whether the RFL know it is anyone’s guess. There will be backslapping aplenty at their headquarters after Leigh’s promotion to Super League, which in the eyes of some suggests the Super 8s work as a concept.
However, under a conventional one-up, one-down system, Leigh would have been promoted three times over already, having finished top of the Championship for the last three seasons.
The positive for rugby league is that it’s nowhere near too late to act. Change things, make things different and those floating fans who are slowly deserting the game. Keep it as it is, and the game will continue to regress, and crowds will continue to go down and down.
Scarcity creates demand: and fans are voting with their feet. It’s time to arrest the slump now before it’s too late.