Confusion leads to lower crowds

League Express - 16 Sept 2013League Express Editorial, Monday 16th Sept 2013

The first round of the Super League play-offs produced a mixed bag of games that spanned the range from ‘gripping’ to ‘one-sided romp’, and no doubt that has sparked plenty of tap-room or more probably Internet discussion. A system that involves eight clubs out of 14 will always produce patchy fare might be the conclusion.
It’s an issue that deserves debate, as does the governing body’s seeming inability to attract supporters to watch what are after all the most important games in their clubs’ season.
If the Rugby Football League haven’t already done so, it might be an idea to commission clubs to canvass their supporters to find out why they are staying away. That customer research shouldn’t be so hard to conduct.
What exactly is the cause of League fans’ lack of interest in what is the most exciting part of the year?
Some fans don’t buy into the play-off system at all, although that doesn’t stop them attending the Grand Final to support their team.
With notable away support at some of this year’s ties, it was apparent that it was home support, mostly season ticket holders, who were absent.
In our view, the format of the play-off system has got to be a big part of the problem, because in the 16th year since British Rugby League adopted the system, we are still constantly asked to explain how it works.
From 1998 the Top-Five system was introduced and, after a slow start, it began to draw respectable crowds.
The system was expanded for the 2002 season to Top-Six and the concept grew in popularity, with the all-time largest five play-off crowds coming in the next two years, with all the games involving the big four as it then was, Wigan, St Helens, Leeds and Bradford.
But when Super League expanded to 14 teams in 2009, the top-eight system was introduced and average crowds since then have plummeted.
The five worst play-off crowds have come in the top-eight era. By 2011, a Wigan v St Helens elimination play-off was drawing 12,893 people, compared to 2004 when the same tie drew over 20,000.
This season, we have a top-eight play-off for Super League and the Kingstone Press Championship, although the latter is different because it has no club-call; a top-five for the Championship One, although the top club was named Champion and didn’t compete in it, and a top-six in the Academy.
If that sort of confusion turns people off, it’s no big surprise.
The RFL should bear that in mind, as it seeks to implement its two-twelves and three-eights league re-structure.