What about spectator burnout?
January 24, 2011
New Zealand's Super Rugby coaches - the Highlanders' Mark Hammett, the Highlanders' Jamie Joseph, the Crusaders' Todd Blackadder, the Blues' Pat Lam and the Chiefs' Ian Foster - must prevent player burnout but who is looking after the fans? © Getty Images
At the start of another calendar year and the beginning of a momentous southern hemisphere rugby season, one that will incorporate an extended Super Rugby campaign, an intense Tri-Nations and the Rugby World Cup, let us consider the possibilities of burnout.
The details of the fixture list, the implications of which have already prompted the New Zealand Ministry of Education to adjust the timings of the four-term school year to help cope with the logistics of the World Cup, are frightening.
The expanded Super Rugby season gets underway in Wellington on February 18 when the Hurricanes face off against the Highlanders. Conference play then extends for another mind-boggling 17 rounds before the play-offs climax in the final on July 9 - Week 21. That is virtually six months of non-stop rugby.
The players then pause for breath, change jerseys and then come out to do it all again from July 23 until August 27 in the guise of the Tri-Nations. If anybody has survived that, then there is a mere fortnight's gap before the World Cup kicks off at Auckland's Eden Park on September 9 and climaxes at the same venue on October 23.
Yes, we are heading for burnout. The weekend's news that Richie McCaw will make a delayed start to the season merely underlines the fact that the players will be well looked after. But who is looking out for the spectators? Why is nobody addressing the issue of spectator burnout?
The highways and by-ways of New Zealand are already bedecked with flags and bunting reminding everyone of the months in the early spring when this small, isolated country will become one of the focal points of the sporting world. Ticket sales are apparently going well, even at a time of economic recession and a palpable sense that worse things could just be around the corner.
While the World Cup obviously offers unique, once-in-a generation, even once-in- a lifetime opportunities to become part of a major sporting jamboree, there has to be a limit to what the sport-supporting public of New Zealand can reasonably sustain. Already fleeced by substantial Sky TV subscriptions, the investment of whose parent company payrolls rugby in the southern hemisphere, the rugby public is additionally being asked to stump up for an expanded Super Rugby competition, the existence of which is only grudgingly accepted, at best.
Professional Super Rugby franchises are based in the five major New Zealand cities: Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin. But there has been a backlash against these in recent years as the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) attempted to 'streamline' the organisation and funding of its premier domestic inter-provincial competition, the NPC, or whatever commercially-named version is current. Such a process entailed an attack on the viability of some provincial communities to withstand the crueller winds of the prevailing economic orthodoxies. But they have been resisted and there was spectacular evidence of the good health of provincial New Zealand rugby with the 2010 ITM Cup competition.
Particularly in New Zealand's North Island, the urban concentration of the franchises makes it difficult for those in the far-flung corners of a franchise's catchment area to engage with, never mind attend, what is going on at the centre. And there are simply not the financial resources in such places to sustain meaningful engagement with Super Rugby. So add alienation to the list, alongside burnout.
It seems logical to expect that attendances at Super Rugby matches will decline. Despite what the NZRU likes us to believe, the past four or five years have been marked by widespread apathy and indifference. The decision by the Auckland Blues to appoint Bryce Woodward, Northland's Head Coach, as their backs coach for 2011, indicated a belated acknowledgement that they needed to pay attention to their constituent unions. It is also ironic that had the NZRU's rationalisation plans come to fruition then Woodward, a good coach, would have been in no position to challenge for such a coaching position because his province would have been relegated to a lower division.
In a year that will make so many demands on everyone in the southern hemisphere, but especially in New Zealand, players, coaches and administrators will not be the only ones managing themselves and their resources anxiously. The game is only sustainable where there is a healthy base of support and where that support is understood and respected. Concern that there is simply too much rugby about to be played in 2011 is widespread, increasing the possibility that people will switch off. Literally.
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