Do the Premiership numbers add up?
September 22, 2009
Saracens and Northampton drew a bumper crowd to Wembley Stadium earliert his month © Getty Images
The early weeks of this season's Guinness Premiership have been marked by some headline-grabbing attendance figures at club matches in England. And while it may not be as much fun as discussing a Tom Varndell try or working out why Leicester have gone all powder-puffy at the breakdown, this story bears some scrutiny.
The Guinness Premiership marketing department doesn't need any help from me - they are active enough with the 250th anniversary of dear old Arthur and his black stuff upon us - but here's a quick review of the upside in crowd number-crunching.
There were 67,684 punters at Twickenham on opening day, for the London Double Header, 44,832 at Wembley for Saracens v Northampton a week later and a ground league record 24,000 at Welford Road last Saturday when Leicester met Newcastle Falcons in front of the new, 10,000-seat Caterpillar Stand.
It was not particularly coincidental that I attended all three occasions (four matches), and each had its own colour, character and frisson. The new stand at Leicester faces the changing room tunnel and an opposition player needs to be made of stern stuff not to have a nervous glance at the massed ranks of antipathetic faces glaring down at him. The players are already made to nudge and "excuse me" through autograph-hunting fans beneath the Crumbie Terrace when they go in and out for their warm-ups; a tradition I love and one I hope Leicester don't do away with if and when their further expansion plans take shape in the next three years. I also wondered whether the glut of misplaced passes on Saturday night had something to do with the change in the players' sight lines at pitch level, but that's another matter.
These numbers speak of a spectacular boom in the English club game. Even if you do a necessary calculation - one ignored by most media commentators - and halve the London Double Header gate to give a rough figure for each match, there were around 34,000 people in there for Saracens v London Irish. Now let's guess that half of those were following Saracens, and that they all pitched up the following week to Wembley, so we could say that something like 17,000 people went to both matches. Then add in the extra numbers who were enticed to the national football stadium for the Northampton match, and you can understand why Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman, gazed around Wembley and said, "To think that 15 years ago I was sitting on a stone bench at a park pitch in Bramley Road, and now we have got to this."
Big crowds at club grounds are not entirely new. Paul Beken, the former programme editor at London Welsh and font of wisdom on very many things including rugby history, points out that crowds in West Country hotspots like Plymouth numbered well into five figures in the early years of the 20th century. At Welford Road, figures of 25,000 were recorded when touring teams faced Leicester and East Midlands combinations before and soon after the Second World War. The public appetite was there, you may conclude, if the "product" was right.
The product was wrong 30 years ago in September 1979, when a curious day-long competition called the Charrington International Rugby Festival was staged at Wembley. The London Merit Table clubs took part, as a collective fund-raiser, with guest sides including Blackrock College, Toulouse and the winners, Heriot's FP.
Unfortunately the 20-minute matches of 15-a-side were neither one thing nor another - though Rosslyn Park must have been happy enough with their win over Toulouse, while an acquaintance of mine who played for Metropolitan Police was quite content to play a couple of pool matches and spend the rest of the day eating free pork pies and drinking the sponsors' beer. The attendance was given by the Wembley press office as 16,000, and it was reckoned to be a little exaggerated.
If memory serves, they had another go on what was then the artificial pitch at QPR FC the following year, before the event died a death. (Anyone who remembers differently, please drop Scrum.com a line!)
The changed context today is of a game made popular by England's 2003 Rugby World Cup win and vastly increased coverage in national newspapers and on television and the web; of better facilities at club grounds with family orientated things to do on match days, and the lure of watching matches at Twickenham and Wembley where tickets are so difficult to come by when the respective England sides are playing.
You can sense a "but" coming, can't you? The first is that the boom is not being felt across the board. The attendance for Gloucester v Bath on the opening weekend of the season was 12,815 (more than 3,000 below Kingsholm's capacity, and for a derby match in good weather, albeit on a Sunday); Harlequins' first two home matches have drawn 9,805 and 9,209, well below capacity even though Leicester and Saracens were the opposition. Some sort of "Bloodgate" effect, perhaps?
Sale's 7,208 for the Friday night visit of Bath left more than 3,000 empty places at Edgeley Park. Newcastle's 5,155 when Sale were at Kingston Park two weeks ago will not have contributed much towards a multi-million pound wage bill. Saracens (participants in that original Charrington gig) knocked out cut-price tickets for their modern-day Wembley adventure, and that with the cost of hiring the place, must have raised an eyebrow or two even among their wealthy South African backers.
The next few weeks and months will tell us plenty. Keep an eye on what happens when Saracens - who, uniquely among the Premiership clubs, are tapping into a new audience in the form of ex-pat South Africans - return to Vicarage Road this Sunday and to Wembley later in the season; and when Harlequins and Wasps have home Premiership matches at Twickenham in December and April respectively.
Of course it is true that the general economic recession may be reining in spectators' spending power. But are the likes of Northampton and Leicester, Bath and Gloucester, making a mistake by spending good money on bigger grounds and, in Northampton's case, selling assets to do so (a car park, possibly, to a supermarket)? Contrary to the evidence of the above-mentioned records in this amazing opening month of the season, is the English spectator bubble actually about to burst?