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Are double headers really the answer?

By Stella Mills

Trending on RugbyPass

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Last weekend saw the first double header of the Premier 15s season, with Wasps Women taking to the pitch after the men at Coventry Arena. The event sparked a wider debate online, with some suggesting double headers could be the answer to growing the women’s fan base. However, if last weekend’s event is anything to go by, we have some serious logistical barriers to overcome before this can even remotely be considered a successful route forward.

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Interestingly, ticket holders for the men’s match had automatic free entry to the women’s match. However, this didn’t work both ways, as women’s ticket holders could only enter the arena 15 minutes before kick-off, which presented big issues in itself with it being so late on a Sunday, in a fairly inaccessible location.

If we are to take these double headers seriously and use them as a vehicle to increase the audience of the women’s games, we must be careful how the sport is branded. What perception does this give to women’s rugby if tickets are being given away for free whilst fans are still paying full price to watch the men’s matches?

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In order to attain tangible growth in the sport, we must move away from the narrative that women’s rugby is a cheap and enjoyable day out. Yes, it is enjoyable, but if you market something at a low price point, or even worse, no price point, you’re automatically branding the product as worthless.

When marketing a double header, the event needs to be promoted as one single experience, not two separate spectacles. Also, the fans journey, right from the ticket purchase all the way through to them leaving the stadium, must be front and centre of this marketing strategy.
For example, one of the main gripes with double headers currently is the long break between matches. Clubs need to ensure they are engaging fans throughout this, to create an enjoyable experience. It is not enough to put on two events and expect fans to entertain themselves for hours in between. Previously, this free time has only led to an increase in alcohol consumption, which whilst this can be good for the club’s income, it doesn’t do anything for the atmosphere in the audience.

Harlequins seem to have clicked onto this with promotion of The Big Game, having announced Pete Tong as an entertainment act during the break between matches. Both matches are sold as one product, the club have pushed a ‘one event, one ticket’ narrative through various marketing strategies, which is a welcomed move forward.

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RugbyPass spoke exclusively to Harlequins CEO, Laurie Dalrymple, on the clubs upcoming double header: “The Big Game gives us a real opportunity to amplify the level of support, engagement and reach that women’s rugby can have. The sport is developing extremely quickly, but still has a long way to go.”

“The Big Game initiative is now in its 13th year, it’s the biggest club rugby event in the world and so it would be utterly remiss of us not to take every opportunity to use it as a vehicle to increase the exposure of women’s sport.”

When asked if he thinks both teams have different fan bases, he disagreed, stating: “I don’t see it as men’s and women’s fans, they are just fans. We need to do more to break down the preconception of one sport being played, viewed and consumed by one gender.”

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Despite Dalrymple’s comments, I still think clubs should be mindful of marketing to two different fan bases. Some men’s rugby fans won’t like women’s rugby, and that’s fine. We shouldn’t expect them to stay and watch the women’s match just for the sake of it, that’s the exact opposite of what is needed.

We shouldn’t be begging for support in the wrong places, women’s rugby as a product is strong enough to attract new audiences on its own merit, it just needs the opportunity to do so.

Therefore, the narrative of begging men’s rugby fans to stay for the women’s match is far from desirable, in my eyes.
You then have to consider the argument of scheduling, do you put the women’s game on first, or after? Which one is better for the sport? If the event is marketed as one, with ticket sales also reflecting that, I don’t think it matters too much on the order of the matches. The issue comes when both events are seen as separate, and you see virtually the whole stadium emptying out before the women kick off, because of the disparity of numbers between the separate fan bases. It’s not a good look for the sport, and surely must be discouraging for players and fans alike to see that?

This also feeds into the wider debate about a one club mantra. As most Premiership Rugby clubs now have partnerships with a women’s team, in one form or another, double headers will more than likely become a desirable option moving forward. It would be interesting to hear the players thoughts on this, as often women’s teams want a different identity to the men’s team, but also want to feel like they are part of something bigger within the club.

The phrase “rugby is rugby” is often banded around, and although I think this is right – and have probably used it on more than one occasion myself – I stick firm to my thoughts on double headers.

The rate of success seems to rest on how seriously clubs take the marketing of the event, as going by last weekends experience, the future of them is questionable at most.

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