Opinion: Has Thursday night Super League run its course?

When British Rugby League undergoes its major restructure in the coming months, one of the biggest areas of concern for those involved in the game is how to solve the age old dilemma of attendances.

League Express revealed this week that only four Super League clubs were able to post an increase on their average gates for 2014, with some clubs suffering four-figure reductions in their average attendance.

And when the newly-revamped Super League does kick off next year, it will be interesting to see whether the experiment to keep Thursday games on Sky Sports is continued. Whilst a great slot for viewers sat at home watching on TV – largely due to their rarely being any other live sport on TV at that time – the attendances for Thursday games are continuously brought into question.

So, TotalRL.com has examined the figures from Thursday night Super League games stretching all the way back to the beginning of July, giving us a broad spread of eight games staged at seven different Super League grounds. The results are below, and they certainly make interesting reading (games in bold detail a game where attendance is down on season average):

Round 27: Wigan v Warrington – Attendance: 15156 (Wigan average in 2014 – 14102)
Round 26: St Helens v Warrington – Attendance: 12854 (St Helens average in 2014 – 12120)
Round 25: Warrington v Huddersfield – Attendance: 8777 (Warrington average in 2014 – 9870)
Round 24: Hull KR v Wigan – Attendance: 6801 (Hull KR average in 2014 – 7848)
Round 23: Wigan v Salford – Attendance: 12962 (Wigan average in 2014 – 14102)
Round 22: Hull FC v Castleford – Attendance: 9959 (Hull FC average in 2014 – 11159)
Round 21: Leeds v Castleford – Attendance: 16173 (Leeds average in 2014 – 15068)
Round 20: Wakefield v Widnes – Attendance: 3932 (Wakefield average in 2014 – 4351)
Round 19: Widnes v Castleford – Attendance: 4562 (Widnes average in 2014 – 5635)

The most striking thing from the eight games in question is that the three which have seen an increase in attendance have all been local derbies. Warrington’s trips to St Helens and Wigan are always well attended fixtures, but when you throw into the mix the timing of the games – the penultimate two rounds of the season, when there is so much at stake – there may be something in that, too.

How do we avoid empty stadiums on Thursday nights?
How do we avoid empty stadiums on Thursday nights?

Of the five fixtures that have seen lower gates than the average, it’s the trans-Pennine games that seem to suffer the most. That is an issue that is discussed by fans a lot; the scheduling of Thursday games can make it incredibly difficult for fans to travel around 60 or 70 miles – especially on a motorway which endures as many problems as the M62. Looking back, asking Widnes fans to make their way to Wakefield on a Thursday night is logistically tough, especially when lots of people don’t finish work until 5pm or later.

Hull KR v Wigan in Round 24 has suffered the same problem – which is no surprise, given the massive distance between the two cities (around 110 miles). There isn’t just the challenge of getting there in time for kick-off; there’s the nightmare of not getting home until the early hours when people have to be up for work. On a Friday this is somewhat less of a problem, given how most people have Saturday off work.

So can the Thursday night slot survive – and also thrive – in 2015? Of course it can, but it just needs to be managed correctly. The figures prove that if the planning is done correctly, and local derbies are given the slot, there is reason for it to succeed. The viewing figures would also suggest that.

The main issue the game faces is planning their games realistically in a geographical sense. If it can do that, then there’s no reason why Thursday night games should fall off the radar. After all, it’s become a renowned slot for Rugby League nationwide.