Talking Rugby League: How to boost poor attendances at Challenge Cup games

There is a touch of irony for Rugby League in the fact that the Challenge Cup receives some very welcome free-to-air TV coverage on the BBC to a potentially very wide audience, while unfortunately the crowds for Challenge Cup games continue to be sparse, making it look as though Rugby League supporters don’t really care about the Cup very much at all.

It’s a problem that’s been with us for a long time now. But unfortunately the RFL seems unable to come up with a strategy to counter the situation.

No matter how good the games are – and there were some very good games in the Challenge Cup this weekend – the casual viewer won’t be too impressed if it looks as though Cup matches are being played in front of very limited crowds.

It was interesting to see that Huddersfield’s home game against Hull FC drew only 3,637 spectators, and at least half of those must have been in the away end of the ground, which was packed with Hull supporters. How many would have been there is Hull were not so well supported?

And Wakefield’s attendance for their game against Wigan was only 3,756, again with a healthy contingent of Wigan fans.

As far as I’m aware, Hull Kingston Rovers haven’t released the crowd figure for their match against Castleford on Friday night, but I would estimate it at around 5,000, which is well below the recent five-figure attendance for their home game against Warrington.

In the early 1960s, when Wakefield drew Wigan at home in the Challenge Cup the ‘sold out’ signs went up and there were 28,000 people in Belle Vue. How on earth can we claim that the game is thriving when we see a decline in popularity on that sort of scale.

And yet every year we keep having the same approach to the Challenge Cup, hoping that the crowds will somehow improve.

And yet there surely is a way forward.

In recent years the RFL has organised the semi-finals as a double header at a suitable venue.

This year the two semi-finals will be played at Elland Road as part of a triple-header, with the Women’s Challenge Cup Final also taking place on the same day at the same venue.

The RFL will obviously be hoping for a big crowd and I hope they will get one if the event can we well promoted. Last time we had semi-final double-header unaffected by Covid was in 2019 when more than 24,000 spectators turned out for Warrington v Hull FC and St Helens v Halifax at Bolton FC’s home ground. On the face of it, the semi-finals that will be played this year look to be a bigger draw, so it would be good to see the crowd exceeding 30,000 at Elland Road.

But wouldn’t it be a good idea to play the quarter-final matches also at neutral venues, either as two double-headers or even playing four matches at one venue, in a Magic Weekend format.

I suspect that to go down that route would be to draw more supporters and, as a result, we would have a more satisfying TV spectacle.

Unfortunately if we keep playing Cup games at the home of the team that is drawn first out of the bag, many of the fans who hold season-tickets will refuse to lay out the additional cost of attending a Cup game. But they may feel quite differently if the Challenge Cup games are made into an event at a neutral venue.

A healthy crowd at Cornwall

It was good to see a crowd of 1,473 at the Memorial Ground in Penryn for the new club Cornwall’s home debut against the Midlands Hurricanes.

The final score was 14-60 in favour of the Hurricanes, which was a much more one-sided scoreline than perhaps we would all have liked.

It shows that Cornwall will face some tough matches in a tough competition this season.

But the great thing is that the people who turned up to watch the game seemed to enjoy it and the new club’s engagement with its fledgling supporters seems to be very strong. Most fans cheered their new team throughout the 80 minutes, which were shown on the OurLeague App, as will all Cornwall’s games this season.

So it wasn’t an easy home debut for the club, but hopefully most of those who were there on Sunday will return for more home games.

And, as spring becomes summer, I can’t think of a better place to watch Rugby League than in the Duchy of Cornwall.

Women’s Rugby League moving forward

Women’s Rugby League has just enjoyed a big weekend, with the Challenge Cup quarter-finals (see page 23) and, in Australia, the NRLW Grand Final, with Sydney Roosters defeating the St George Illawarra Dragons in front of a standalone crowd of 7,855 at the Moreton Daily Stadium at Redcliffe, north of Brisbane.

And as our news story on page 3 makes clear, the TV audiences for Women’s Rugby League in Australia have been quite outstanding.

It’s hardly surprising that female players there are now being paid as professional players.

Anyone who watched that game would recognise what great entertainment it was, how high the skill levels were and what great athletes are playing the game.

The same is true in this country, although our female talent is more thinly spread out among a larger number of clubs.

But the entertainment value is surely just as great.

Rob Burrow MBE

Last Tuesday Rob Burrow was presented with his MBE by the Princess Royal at Windsor Castle.

It was an honour much deserved for a young bloke who was so cruelly struck down by a terrible disease so soon after his retirement.

I still find it very difficult to believe that someone so genuine and so talented could be afflicted in that way.

As we knew he would, Rob is fighting the disease with enormous strength of character.

Once more I would like to wish him and his family all the very best.

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