A sign of turning public interest in rugby or proof of fickle Australian sports fans?
More than 8,000 spectators turned up to a club rugby derby in Sydney’s northern beaches for a match between Manly Marlins and Warringah Rats, besting the final home crowd of local professional rugby league outfit Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles who managed 6,382.
The Sea Eagles, who play in the NRL, have had one of the worst attendances in over 50 years as their season has been plagued with off-season turmoil.
Despite declining interest in the professional game of rugby union in Australia, club rugby has undergone a resurgence of sorts as fans turned their backs on Rugby Australia over perceived nepotism rooted in the upper echelons of the game and ignoring grassroots development.
The Shute Shield, the club rugby competition in Sydney, made headlines for a bumper crowd of an estimated 20,000 at last year’s grand final – more than any NSW Waratahs game that year. Games at the Manly Oval were a big part of that, consistently drawing over 10,000.
The success in part has to be credited to the pair of rugby fans Nick Fordham and John Murray, who shelled out $1-million to secure the rights of the Shute Shield for 10 years following the ABC’s decision to stop broadcasting the game due to declining interest.
The pair saw an opportunity to take the game to a commercial free-t0-air network, allowing corporate sponsorship and promotion which is not permitted on the government-funded ABC. The Shute Shield became the only free-to-air rugby competition in the country and saw growing interest amid a concerted effort to promote the game.
Rugby administrators in Australia should take note on the turnaround success of an amateur competition, or at least take optimism that a professional rugby turnaround is possible with the Australian public – with the right strategy in place.
Whether club rugby has now started flipping league fans is yet to be known, but the strong attendances can only be a good thing for a code that struggles to gain traction in local media.
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