Where are the fans?

MARTYN SADLER wonders why crowds appear to be declining this season.

This article first appeared in Monday’s edition of Rugby League Express.

Rugby League supporters currently seem to be in decline.

Throughout the game, crowds seem to be falling, with few exceptions.

On Thursday night, for example, Huddersfield could only draw a little over 6,000 for the visit of Champions Wigan for a game that looked a great prospect on paper, and certainly fulfilled those expectations.

On Friday night Warrington and St Helens both drew just over 10,000 for the visit of Leeds and Salford respectively, while Widnes drew fewer than 5,000 supporters to see them taking on the Catalan Dragons in another match that turned out to be a good’un.

On Sunday the Bulls could only draw just over 6,000 spectators for their relegation battle against Wakefield, when a year earlier the same fixture had drawn more than 10,000 fans, admittedly when it was the first game of the season.

In the Championship there were four attendances of less than 1,000, while, of the three that exceeded that figure, the highest crowd was the figure of 1,217 who turned out at Cougar Park for Keighley’s West Yorkshire derby against Halifax.

I’m convinced that Rugby League is the best spectator sport in the world.
And yet, to judge by the attendance figures, I am clearly in a deluded minority.

What is particularly disappointing is that we had a great World Cup tournament last year, and yet there has been absolutely no boost in spectator numbers for the game at club level.

Where have all those fans who turned up to watch the World Cup gone to?
Wouldn’t we all like to know?

Why are fans so hard to attract to Rugby League, and why does it seem to easy to lose them?

No doubt everyone has their pet theory – including referees, the cost of admission, the quality of play (although I can’t go with that one), or the crazy fixture scheduling.

I tend towards the latter view, that the way Rugby League fixtures are scheduled is an active deterrent to potential spectators.

Consider, for example, two sports clubs in West Yorkshire that share the same stadium – Huddersfield Giants and Huddersfield Town.

During the 2013/4 football season, if you were a Huddersfield Town supporter, you knew exactly when your side would be playing, whether at home or away.

It would always be on a Saturday afternoon at 3.00pm. The only possible exception was if your team was selected for a Sky Sports broadcast. In that case, if I remember rightly, you would kick-off at 12.30pm on Saturday. It was a relatively minor adjustment.

But when do Huddersfield Giants play?

Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Sunday!

I know many people who would like nothing more than to watch the Giants regularly. But they can’t be available at all the varying times the Giants play, so they don’t buy season tickets, and they miss most of the Giants’ games.

That point was brought home to me when I was at a social event a few months ago in a village just outside Huddersfield.

Several people there told me they were Huddersfield Town season-ticket holders, but actually preferred watching the Giants. But they led busy lives and couldn’t follow the Giants’ haphazard fixture schedule.

I’m sure the same must be true in other towns that share football and Rugby League clubs.

We are fighting a battle with one hand tied behind our backs.

On the other hand, that doesn’t explain why Championship attendances are so modest, since they almost always have Sunday afternoon kick-offs.
In that case I just think that the national profile of the Championship is now so low that it’s hard for clubs to draw a crowd, despite the stalwart efforts of some of them.

And one thing is for sure.

All the clubs richly deserve to draw higher crowds than they are currently getting.

Martyn Sadler writes a weekly ‘Talking Rugby League’ column in Rugby League Express, which is available in the shops and online every Monday.

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