| 6.9°C Dublin

Survey sheds worrying light on game's appeal

Fewer women and young men keen on rugby, crowds down generally, an issue with trust in the sport, a reduction in the number who consider that what they are watching is "excellent" -- just some of the less favourable findings emerging from a recent survey which asked 12,000 regular rugby watchers what they thought of the English Premiership.

The responses do not indicate a sport in crisis. The majority of respondents still consider their club friendly and the rugby exciting and competitive, but after years of steady growth, fuelling the ambition that all 12 clubs will finally break even or better financially within two years following the injection of more TV money, it appears the Premiership may be losing its lustre.

Mark McCafferty, Premier Rugby's chief executive, is sanguine about some of the feedback, dismissing the two per cent drop in the number of women interested in rugby in the past two years as "the kind of movement which is not statistically relevant", but the truth is that the sport has failed to attract women in significant numbers since 2004. Six years ago 19 per cent expressed affection for rugby. Last year the figure was much the same at 18 per cent.

The lack of progress is all the more galling because broadening the supporter base has been a key goal of Premier Rugby, with the Big Game idea, pioneered by Harlequins and Saracens and soon to be repeated by Sale, engineered specifically to encourage greater family participation.

"Given that 50 per cent of the population is female, the more you attract the more you grow," McCafferty said. "If we attract more women, we might open ourselves up to new sponsors who want to get involved and who want more balanced demographics. And, obviously, children are the next generation of rugby supporters."

But it's not just women who are proving difficult to entice. Young men are similarly diffident. One of the more startling trends coming out of the questionnaire is a five per cent fall in men aged 34 or under who consider themselves rugby fans. The fact that 34 is seen in rugby supporter terms as 'young' is worrying enough, but not as alarming as the decrease in that category from 24 per cent in 2006 and 23 per cent in 2008 to 18 per cent last year. "It might just be that fewer younger people have responded," said McCafferty.

Rugby watching: an old man's game? Not necessarily, according to Tony Rowe, chief executive of Exeter. "I haven't got the figures to back it up, but my sense is that we get many more youngsters and women along to games here than those numbers suggest.

"I think the problem with the Premiership is that you've got rugby clubs playing at football grounds and no matter what you do you can't create the rugby atmosphere in that environment. We've been in the Premiership just long enough for me to visit everybody's ground and they're like chalk and cheese.

"I've been to football grounds hosting rugby clubs where the game has finished at 4.45, yet by 5.30 they've closed all the bars and kicked everyone out. If you've got a proper rugby club such as Leicester, Northampton, Worcester, Gloucester, Harlequins, and I'd include ourselves in that list, after the game there's a cracking atmosphere with live bands and the like.

"I see myself as a ringmaster, providing a day's entertainment with the match in the middle. I can't promise a good game of rugby. That's beyond my control. But we aim to offer eight hours of fun, and if that's not value for money I don't know what is."

The Exeter model is pretty straightforward. Clean loos for the women, sweets and fizzy drinks for the kids, and a good old-fashioned rugby singalong in the beer tent for those who fancy it. "You've got to make the place family-friendly," Rowe insisted. "If you go to a pub or a restaurant, and your missus goes to the toilet and it's awful, she'll come back and say, 'We're not coming here again.' Some of the toilet facilities at some of the Premiership grounds leave a lot to be desired. A lot of our toilets are in purpose-built Portakabins, but they are clean and presentable. They're not hovels.

"We also went out and bought a caravan which we've converted into a sweet shop for the kids. All it sells is sweets and pop. We copied the idea from Northampton and on a good day the shop will turn over £1,000. Do you want your six-year-old queuing up at a bar to get his pop and sweets? You don't, do you? But I bet you'd be quite happy for him or her to go to a dedicated sweet shop. Things like that make a difference."

Rowe's analysis of the difficulties facing club rugby in England is not new. Saracens are due to move to a new stadium with a plastic pitch, and Premier Rugby are actively supporting Bath and Wasps in their push for new homes, but that still leaves a number of clubs playing in leased football grounds in areas which are not traditional rugby territories.

"We've been doing a lot of work in conjunction with the IRB on these artificial surfaces," McCafferty said. "That'll be a big change for next season, improving the reliability of the surface, the quality and speed of the rugby and, possibly, reducing the frequency of reset scrums. If it works as well as we expect, then market forces will take over and other clubs will follow. It also opens up opportunities to use stadiums for something other than rugby without damaging the pitch."

Rowe's philosophy, cruder, more down-to-earth, doesn't extend to mucking about with the pitch to pack in the fans. "Rugby matches are still very much a social event," he said. "I'm still getting letters from new members who have brought family and friends along and are delighted that no one swears. Proper rugby people want to come down, have a sing-song and enjoy themselves. Those traditions are still alive if you provide the facilities for them."

And maybe that's the harsh lesson from the latest survey. For all the innovation, the use of new media as a communication tool, the marketing of the Big Games, the obsession with making the spectacle more attractive to new fans, watching club rugby is, and always will be, a pastime for middle-aged blokes living in the English south-west, midlands and a small pocket of London. It's just how it is.


Sunday Indo Sport