The season is reaching its end – the playoffs are here but it seems this year the competition is stumbling across the finish line with a whimper rather than climaxing in rising anticipation for crowning this year’s champion.
The pre-determined feeling that they will win has turned them into the villain for ‘stealing’ the unpredictability that feeds excitement. It is not the Crusaders fault – they are the product of a ‘super’ conference that breeds champions.
When SAANZAR looked to implement the American conference model, they foolishly didn’t consider the differences – namely free market forces like free agency and drafts that work to disperse the talent equally across the league to keep everything in check. New Zealand’s vast talent pool is ever evolving due to strength of competition, distancing itself from their Australian counterparts.
With South Africa’s teams dreaming of a European rendezvous, how can this competition be re-tooled to grow into a premier professional rugby competition? And, how do we avoid the Southern Hemisphere version of Brexit, SAANZit?
What is needed now is a complete reset but also strategic action to address waning interest in the game in Australia and New Zealand.
First things first
Everyone knows the conference format needs to go.
The distorted points system has ruined the integrity of the playoffs by rewarding teams with home ground advantage that don’t deserve it. A return to the old round robin format and semi-finals are the first steps to making Super Rugby great again.
Whilst the increased volume of high-quality New Zealand derbies will be missed, it’s for the greater good that everyone plays each other once.
The Australian teams are not going to get better by playing each other more than they play the stronger teams. It’s basic principles of business – tariffs don’t usually help local businesses be competitive in the long run, and avoiding games against all the New Zealand and South African teams is effectively doing the same thing for Australian rugby.
There are some concerns to be had about the travel toll this would have on South Africa’s teams, but since the introduction of the conference systems, no South African team has won Super Rugby.
Less is more
Under the old format, the season concluded around late May, uninterrupted by June internationals. If every team played each other once, this would result in a reduction in regular season games from 16 to 14.
With a bit of juggling, June internationals could be pushed back into later in the month or early July to allow the finals to take place. The season would conclude before the start of the Southern Hemisphere international season. The international touring window would then flow directly into the Rugby Championship with less load on the players.
The current administrators have currently traded competition integrity for more revenue, which has diminished the product creating a long-term value problem. Moving back to a reduced regular season and a reduced playoff format means less revenue in the short-term but an improved product that will command more in the future.
Each market is different, but the exclusivity of rugby in both Australia and New Zealand has no doubt failed to grow the Super Rugby brand – especially in Australia.
The professional sporting landscape in Australia is highly competitive, dominated by AFL and NRL and the third pillar A-League. These professional leagues have grown in popularity, leaving Super Rugby behind by some distance.
Both the AFL and NRL’s rights deals have ballooned as interest has increased. To maintain a public presence, both of these leagues have ensured that live free-to-air exposure remains as some part of the deal. This has helped in some part to grow value, maximising brand exposure for teams and the competition. Rugby’s exclusive live pay-tv deal has pushed them into irrelevance in Australia, where they already face an uphill battle as a niche code.
New Zealand’s market is different with rugby being the dominant code, but having the game ring-fenced still makes it inaccessible to many. Out of sight eventually becomes out of mind, limiting the team’s exposure and making the public indifferent to them – look at the lack of interest in the Blues, a team that sits in the country’s largest populated city.
Accessibility is key, even down to the timing of games.
Broadcasters control too much of the schedule. They have eliminated afternoon games in New Zealand and they occur on the odd occasion in Australia. The Sunday afternoon timeslot is severely missed by fans, especially in the winter months. The early timeslots are absolutely required for families to attend games, which would help boost attendances.
Before T.V. executives cry foul, they should look at the NFL where most games are played on Sunday afternoon, with many kicking off at the same time. That hasn’t stopped the league becoming the most valuable in the world.
If the competition also finished by early June, it would go some way to avoiding poor crowds on those cold winter nights.
This is a highly underrated factor in keeping interest in the game and building a relationship with the next generation.
NZR’s approach has been to try build interest for Super Rugby with the younger demographic by using a host of cheap, gimmicky campaigns – full of flashing lights and dancing but short on substance. They have tried to promote Super Rugby as a broader event worth coming to and playing an active cheerleader role with scripted dance moves. The same approach was used in trying to save the dying Wellington Sevens, with a last-ditch campaign asking fans to “bring their twerk”.
These campaigns are probably received well by an audience that is unfortunately unlikely to watch a game, let alone attend one. The generational problem was summed up perfectly when a pair of young female dancers at one of the season launch campaigns was asked if they were Super Rugby fans themselves, to which both replied in unison, ‘my dad is’.
The last few campaigns, ‘Super bang bang’ and ‘Super boom boom’ have increasingly had nothing to do with actual rugby. The 2017 ‘music video’ advertisement had no game footage with no words spoken by any of the players. There is zero substance behind them, failing to build on the history of the competition and build any real connection between players and fans. It serves to dumb down the product in an attempt to attract the masses, but the eye test shows plenty of empty seats in oversized stadiums.
There needs to be a better understanding of who the fans are and who next potential fans could be.
Sports fans in general across Australia and New Zealand have increasingly found interest in US sports leagues as accessibility has become more prevalent in the Internet age.
The history of each league is an integral part of how they are marketed, along with unprecedented behind the scenes access given to fans, more informed media coverage, more transparency around the business dynamics of the game and less control over the players, allowing individuals to be more open. All of this makes for a hyper-driven cycle of entertainment on-and-off the field, which has attracted many sports fans whom now have passions for teams in places they have never even been to. Many of this generation’s current Super Rugby players are avid followers of the NBA and NFL.
This pulling power is now starting to have a real impact with shifts in youth sports preferences. Basketball will take over as New Zealand’s number one participated sport by youth by 2020, a very worrying sign as playing rugby continues to decline in popularity. The highest levels of competitive youth rugby are still very strong as it provides career options for the best athletes, but the social grades that make up most of the participation numbers (and the next generation of people that watch) are thinning year by year.
New Zealand will have great teams in the future, but how many rugby fans will there be to watch them play Super Rugby each week?
Signs of falling relevance
With 20 years of competition under the belt, Super Rugby is coming out of infancy with some history behind it and it would be a shame to see it stagnate and head backward. The globalisation of sport has definitely weakened rugby’s foothold in New Zealand and further pushed it to the sidelines in Australia.
There are clear signs that show a need for consolidation and re-adjustment in a number of areas in order to claw back interest and then trend in the right direction. This means sacrificing short-term revenues to move back to what worked in the past and using that foundation to grow exposure, not by increasing the number of games or teams.
Addressing these areas will fix Super Rugby and set it on the path for a brighter future.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.