Monday 17 June 2019

Ewan MacKenna: There's a little secret behind why rugby gets so much coverage - and it's nothing to do with popularity

Ireland celebrate Grand Slam glory
Ireland celebrate Grand Slam glory
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

It's already been buried under the weight of mood and marketing. And, of course, marketed mood. But it's worth remembering that short of two-and-a-half years back, the Munster brand was in trouble.

At the beginning of 2016, after just 7,200 had shown up to Thomond Park for a derby with Ulster, the province had shifted only 160 tickets for an away-day with Stade Francais of which 40 per cent were purchased abroad. The late Anthony Foley even bemoaned the terrible interest and attendances, stating that "the umbilical chord has always been there between Munster and our supporters. It's important people come and support us. You've got to come and sample it".

His appeal didn't work however with the Munster hierarchy soon releasing a step-by-step guide titled 'Respect', telling the few showing up how to behave after booing greeted defeat after defeat.

Much has changed since, such is the way of peaks and troughs. Half the country claimed to have been present in 1978, two men and a dog were there in the '80s and much of the '90s, by the 2000s they were the ultimate Celtic Tiger team via wine weekends to south France where the game was only part of the luxury package, and now they're back to an impressive degree. What they show better than most is the bandwagon nature of rugby and, beyond that, of Irish sport.

Munster's fortunes are worth keeping in mind when talking and thinking about the latest forced narrative for, during the Six Nations, Daire O'Brien made an observation that's grown legs. "Everybody goes somewhere to watch the game, everybody has an opinion. Arguably, it's the people's game," he said. It started a theory that most recently led Neil Francis of this parish to preach "we are now following suit with New Zealand in welcoming it as our national game".

He added after the brilliant Twickenham win that it's "strange that a 'minority' sport in this country can command a television audience in excess of 1.3 million. Maybe it was a coincidence that the parades were all finished and that half the nation was in a pub watching the game". And that "as the Vodafone ad says - 'The team of us', rugby is inclusive and all-Ireland. Rugby union transcends". And that "I see the national interest, I see the television figures, I see the sell-out crowds and the evidence of the sustained and broad appeal and it suggests strongly to me that rugby suits the Irish psyche and its attraction and success have more than just caught the imagination".

It reminded you that context is no longer allowed in victory and that this Six Nations crown has been blown out of proportion as if valley girls comparing proms. And it made you wonder when telling the truth became negative as many refuse to consider and accept reality, with their reflex to the pointing out of hyperbole being to attack because for some bizarre reason they feel defensive.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion of course, but such an opinion is wrong. Irish people for the most part in this lazy era of event junkies and occasion appearances don't love rugby, or any sport for that matter, they love winning. The fact that of all the barometers used to measure popularity, rugby only comes out on top only in social media says much. This is where we confuse what sport is for sitting at the bar shouting heave or taking a selfie at what's now popular is certainly not it.

Call it the McGregor effect and there's nothing wrong with it on its own. What is wrong with it however is that it starts to convince people of falsity. That just shy of a million was the average number tuning it to watch that England game doesn't tell a full story just as The Late Late Toy Show ratings don't offer a window into the Irish soul because it's become a ritual for so many.

Rugby for sure has made strides but not always in the right direction as, in a way, it can come across as the house built on sand. A sporting structure should be constructed as if a pyramid and it's for that reason that John Delaney has such power and it's why Gaelic games are facing such a difficult time as changes to that pyramid shape are forced through.

But rugby has a bigger problem still for long gone are the days 10,000 watching Garryowen beat Young Munster in a provincial senior cup final, of city streets awash with fans for an open top bus, of 18,000 in Thomond Park to see Shannon-Garryowen, of 20,000 witnessing would-be champions St Mary's. Now though it's top heavy and could easily topple for its balance is reliant on nothing more than high-end successes.

It's the fur-coat-and-no-knickers scenario.

Indeed between 2009-10 and 2014-15, while the IRFU saw a 20 per cent increase in income, there was a 20 per cent decrease in spend on the domestic game, youth and schools received 33 per cent less, club support was cut by 34 per cent while community rugby spend dropped by 46 per cent. In fact by last year's annual report, the €10m spend on domestic and community rugby combined was only a quarter of the professional game costs and not far above the €7m spend on administration costs. That doesn't scream a national sport and it doesn't scream a people's game.

Copy of IRHomecoming.jpg
Ireland's homecoming from the Italia 90 World Cup. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

To be fair there are those still looking for crowds on the streets and flags from houses as they compare the scale of any triumph against Italia '90. That though was a stand-alone moment for a specific time that can never be replicated. But as much as things change, the essence of sport has to come naturally from the ground up rather than artificially from above via hashtags and ads.

The true standing of rugby is so easy to find for all you've to do is look at ERSI research. In 2015 for instance, it didn't even feature in the top 15 most practiced sports here. Two years earlier similar research amongst over-16s in the Republic of Ireland showed that a mere 2.3 per cent said they'd attended a rugby match in the previous week yet three times more were at a Gaelic football game, two-and-a-half times as many had been at soccer while hurling came in at 2.9 per cent. Meanwhile in terms of club affiliation, while 21 per cent of the nation was a member of a GAA club and golf claimed nine per cent, rugby lay at around 3.5 per cent, similar to swimming and athletics.

There's a good reason for that beyond history, as this column has previously shown rugby's elitism and that the chances of making it in the game are more often than not reliant on a private education. It's why so many still scream Limerick as a comeback, as if mentioning a city with 1.4 per cent of the island's population shows it to be a sport for all. Instead it further proves the point.

This is not to run down anyone's interests or a popularity contest, but it is about reality and dis-proportionality. And it's about rugby being taken out of context over and over. Sure enough there's nothing worse than an insecurity around comparing sports and fawning for recognition but what's interesting here is why rugby is shunted onto a national consciousness through pressure.

If you don't know already, we'll let you in on a little secret. This isn't just down to the sort of self-doubt we saw with hurling's debut on Sky Sports begging for recognition and praise from a UK audience, or the sort of neediness that involves much wanting more. Instead it suits media and marketeers to grow rugby and pretend it's something that facts show it not to be. Those in the industry know this, as customers of rugby fit into the ABC1 demographic better than any other sport. They are essentially those categorised as upper-middle, middle and lower-middle class and they are a lot more valuable than skilled and unskilled manual workers and the unemployed.

Ask yourself, when was the last time you saw national newspaper pullouts for a school sport that wasn't rugby? When was the last time you saw a national under-20 team playing repeatedly on prime time television that wasn't rugby? When was the last time a national women's team outside of rugby had their yearly schedule chalked down to go live? Those ABC1s are exactly the reason and it's troubling that such a push is being made for that very reason. It raises a question as to what kind of society lauds exclusivity and partition through money, and sees it as something to sell and to celebrate. But you don't become a sport for all by trying to trick people to cash in on them.

Rugby is growing and that's great as this shouldn't be a battle between sports. The more the merrier. But as of now, after what was called the golden generation, and as we head into what's called the golden generation, there are still more GAA clubs in Cork than rugby clubs nationwide.

In Ireland today there are around 2,500 GAA clubs, 2,800 soccer clubs in the Republic alone (although registration is like the wild west) 450 cycling clubs, 430 golf clubs, but 224 rugby clubs. They all do great work and cater for so many but to be at the bottom of the list and boasting about being at the top would take either serious arrogance or delusion. Thus it's not the national game, and that should be fine.

You can't satisfy all the people all of the time. It's just that rugby satisfies far fewer a lot less.

Online Editors

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