Tuesday 21 November 2017

Neil Francis: Without fans, it's nul points for PRO14's global vision

 

Rhys Ruddock after winning a lineout against the Southern Kings last week – a match with an AIL-sized attendance. Photo: Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock after winning a lineout against the Southern Kings last week – a match with an AIL-sized attendance. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Sad to relate that I have to choose a Eurovision Song Contest analogy to get my point across on such a subject as the expansion of a rugby franchise, but here goes . . .

The song contest could be back in vogue this year - maybe it's not but in the 1970s and 1980s it had a certain cachet about it. Even in the '90s when we were winning it for fun. Magic is too strong a word but it did provide a spark for the country in tough times back when the contest was winnable.

The advent of the Eastern European countries in an unfettered and unstructured expansion led to pathetic and clumsy voting cliques as the eastern bloc gerrymandered for their own crew. Nothing quite as sophisticated and nuanced as the old-style cliques of Western Europe. Much better when it was just the 12 -16 western European countries in their own competition.

Ireland do not even qualify anymore as 39 acts barely get their three minutes of fame. In 2015, Australia were admitted to the contest. In an anything-goes world, there wasn't really a plausible reason to deny them entry. In 2016, a girl from South Korea, singing for Australia, came second - another couple of votes and the dynamic of the contest is irrevocably changed.

The contest is beamed into our homes at prime time in Europe. The Aussies get to watch it on Sunday morning at 7am. The rules state that if Australia were to ever win the contest then they would have to co-host the following year with a European partner in Europe. All it takes, though, is one blood-sucking leech of a lawyer to think, 'No, this should be held in Australia because we won it'.

An Australian prime-time show and Europe would be getting out of their beds at 6am Sunday to tune in - the juries and the telephoning or texting public too - everyone else will be in bed.

Everyone tells me the world is a global village but geography and distance really do have a way of persuading people that interest in the subject is no longer worthwhile or relevant.

Our new South African friends who have joined the Guinness Pro12 live and play their rugby a long way from Europe. Not many people could point accurately to a map of South Africa and tell you where Port Elizabeth or Bloemfontein is. Not many people can tell you who plays for them or how many times they finished last in their respective Super 18 pools.

On the early evidence, neither of the South African franchises would be likely to host a semi-final by right in the short, medium or long term. It would be commercial suicide to even think of giving Bloemfontein a final. The Italians haven't got one so why should the South Africans.

The point here is that expansion carries a huge risk - if it fails - if the South Africans pull out or their sponsors pull out then the damage to the European game would be considerable. It might not go below the waterline but how many times can you alter the format without losing volition and credibility.

In this case I am not a disciple of the 'nothing ventured' brigade. I am conservative by nature and expansion does not sit easily with me, particularly when you see where other sporting organisations have got themselves into serious trouble chasing additional television revenue and new audiences.

In the greater scheme of things the introduction of the South African franchises would not under the Trade Descriptions Act fall under the term genuine expansion.

It was an accommodation - the South Africans were thrown out of Super rugby and had nowhere else to go. Has anyone really thought this thing through? What is the downside? What exactly is the upside, apart from money?

Because rugby is a relative newbie in the professional sporting ranks, the creed seems to be to just blindly follow the money.

Take a look at Formula One. Tobacco advertising was one of the reasons the circus moved to Asia and the Middle East. The powers that be slowly realised that new markets and revenue streams are one thing but the sport was going to die away from its European hubs.

I long ago gave up watching grands prix in practically empty race tracks in the Middle East. I have been to Monza twice - the lifeblood of this sport is at tracks like this. The madness and the energy of the Tifosi is intoxicating. You can bring the circus around the world but you cannot replicate it in places like Bahrain. Lose your fan base and you die.

Golf's European Tour? I confess I have no idea but watching a dozen disinterested European golfers play in the Indian or Malaysian Open . . .

I also have to confess that the Super 18 has lost a lot of lustre for me. Expansion patently hasn't worked. World Rugby has a vested interest in ensuring that pro franchises in Japan (the Sunwolves) and Argentina (Jaguares) work out. They have to foster a workable pro game in these countries so that their international game keeps pace. There was no question of either of these two sides folding but the Western Force, Cheetahs and Kings just had to go. There was simply too much rugby - too much crap rugby.

The bean-counters' economic model of 'the more the merrier' did not follow through. Whatever else about television revenues and corporate partnerships, if the fans don't turn up and watch the product you are in trouble.

The Kings were averaging 15 per cent of capacity and the Chieftains only marginally better at 17 per cent gates. It is true that gate receipts and season tickets only pay part of the wages but if people on television see vast empty swathes of seats with no bums on them they switch off.

The Yanks get their balances right. I have been to about a dozen NFL games. Only once could I get tickets at the box-office. If you go to an NFL game you understand why that game is in such rude health. The atmosphere is always vibrant and raucous. Big atmospheric crowds translate through to television audiences. The bite, the edge, the conviction and the rivalries are a must for television success.

The NFL has started to play several games a year in Europe but I am certain they won't make the jump. They still have to get their Californian franchises right. Anyway, if it was the right thing to do the Yanks would have done it years ago. Europe for them is too big a risk. Stick to the fan base! NFL expansion is based on the one true economic principle - demand.

The AIL-sized attendances last week in South Africa tell you that this project is not going to work - not even on a slow-burn basis. Rugby in South Africa is dying a slow death - 57-0 tells us all we need to know.

The Currie Cup still has a strong attraction but it's based purely on what the NFL has - a strongly supported league with bite and authentic rivalries. The Cheetahs are, unbelievably, the Currie Cup Champions and pulled a crowd of 42,000 while beating the Blue Bulls last season.

Tomorrow night the Cheetahs play the Pumas in Bloemfontein in the Currie Cup. On Saturday, they play Leinster. Will they play their A team in the Currie Cup as defending champions or play them against a team from a place called Dublin or somewhere like that in this Pro14 thing .

Expansion? Sometimes more is less. If the crowds don't turn up, it's a dead duck.

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