Entertainment, Skills and Fans – But at what cost?
With a window to explore new ideas during this pandemic, there’s a discussion brewing on the potential for rugby to become a summer sport, moving from its traditional winter centric season. There are many positives to this argument but like most things, there are a lot of nuances to unpick. Avoiding the traditional “values” argument, let’s see what a move might lose.
Rugby is touted as a sport for all shapes and sizes
The move to summer rugby and a dry track will potentially enable improved skills, more tries and more running rugby. There’s a lot of evidence in favour of this position. The games with the most errors often coincide with torrential rain, extreme wind or other inclement conditions. Handling and tackling errors become more prevalent as the ball becomes ‘slippy’, as do the opposition players. On the flip side, dry conditions present us with more passes, more running and a faster overall game.
There’s a knock-on effect (pun intended), with a change in body type to deal with this new faster moving game. Rugby doesn’t have to look far to get perspective on this. Cousin sport Aussie Rules is a game based on an oval ball played (albeit on a larger pitch) in mostly summer conditions.
AFL is an incredibly skilful game and incredibly entertaining for the fans. But, take a few minutes to watch a game properly and you’ll notice something. Height and hair cut aside, the athletes are quite uniform in their build. Fast, fit, low body fat. All impressive in their own right but you can argue there’s not a lot of diversity.
Return now to rugby union and ask the question, does Mike Ross survive in the summer edition? How about Ben Tameifuna? Should we relegate them to the graveyard of “innovation”?
Fans want to see improved skillset
Regardless of the season, each team wants to showcase the best skills they have to offer as regularly as possible to appeal to a wider audience. But therein is the key point. Who is this audience? The principle of growing the fan base is based on growing the revenue base. Long term, however, that only works if those fans become repeat fans. Think of the financial stability a subscription based company like Salesforce has versus H&M. All it takes is a new low cost brand to enter the market, and H&M could be in for trouble. Rugby can ill-afford to invest heavily in attracting “transactional” fans if they can be easily lost again as opposed to identifying new revenue streams for their existing fans.
Investing in a new type of match day experience, mid-week player engagement are potential ideas. Do we expect to convert fans from other sports or garner interest from current non-sport watchers? In the age of instant gratification, do we need to look more at digital engagement? Player cams? Interactive replays? etc..
The cost of running the game
The cost of running the game is the underlying driver of these conversations. As player wages inflate, clubs and organisations have to find ways to remain not only financially stable but competitive in the player market. Players should absolutely earn as much as they can in this short career but this must be in line with the revenues the game draws in. There are few other professions where the wages outweigh the revenues generated. Albeit most other careers don’t carry the risk of and end being one injury away and this balance between welfare and compensation is where the tug of war is at its most intense.
Should the season be moved to summer, the expectations is for improved conditions, reduced volume of scrum/resets etc. This will in effect lead to an increase of ball in play time. As it stands there is more ball in play time than ever yet the narrative often shared is that there’s too much lost time. Contrast this with the argument that the player workload is too high and we’re back to drawing table to find a balance between welfare and compensation.
Where is the promised land? 80 minutes of continuous ball in play time? What impact will this have on substitutions? Perhaps a reduction in the number of games per player in a season could balance this but does that not have an effect on how much a player can be paid?
Weather – The great leveller
“Could he do it on a rainy night in Stoke?”. Die hard’s may not appreciate me using a football reference, but the sentiment stands. Watching the Chiefs go down against the Crusaders in the lashing rain in Christchurch, I was once again reminded of the upside to poor weather. The excitement for the underdog as the ball, like a bar of soap, flies out of the hands of the opposition from a strong tackle. Legends of the game like Ronan O’Gara thrived in the tactical kicking game that ensued. And he was lauded for it. Social media would have you think that no-one is entertained by this style, but to this day a Munster crowd will bray and holler for a pinpoint tactical kick.
What is entertaining?
Is it Stephen Ferris picking up Will Genia? Quade Cooper leaving front rows falling backwards? Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira walking the opposition scrum backwards?
Do we want highlight reels of incredible passes, intricate plays, no scrums, and inflated score lines?
Throw your mind back Leinster vs Clermont in the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final or the Chiefs vs Lions in 2010. The former gave me heart failure like no other, but like a drug, left me wanting more. Whereas, the latter left me perplexed at how not one but two teams could concede 60+. Where were the defence coaches?
There are many pros to moving the game to a summer window and I see their merit also. This is just the opinion of one rugby fan, but I think speaks to the fundamentals appeal of rugby union over other sports.
“Main photo credit”