The Rob Baxter verdict on why crowds are down this season at Exeter
Rob Baxter has admitted that Exeter must battle harder on the field to keep their fans onside due to the increased rate of inflation restricting the level of disposable income that people have to spend on going to matches.
The Chiefs came roaring out of the pandemic, enjoying an increased average attendance of 12,199 for their regular season Gallagher Premiership games in 2021/22 compared to the 11,988 average in 2018/2019 when they previously had a full season of league matches before the lockdown.
However, despite the improved facilities at Sandy Park following the post-pandemic opening of their new East Stand which increased overall capacity to 15,600, Exeter have felt the pinch at the turnstiles this season and their average attendance for their eight home league games so far has been 10,465 – down on average 1,734 fans per game on last term.
It’s a downturn that was especially placed in stark contrast weekend when Harlequins hosted Exeter in their Big Game promotion at Twickenham and attracted an attendance of 54,669 – more than the equivalent of five average home crowds for the Chiefs at Sandy Park.
Baxter admitted there is not much Exeter can do with regards to ever planning a similar annual Big Game-type promotion in a larger-capacity stadium as there are no larger stadiums in the south-west to make it worth their while leaving Sandy Park.
However, what the director of rugby did insist was that Exeter must do better on the pitch to keep entertaining their fans and not make a habit of displays such as what they produced in last weekend’s 5-40 thrashing by Quins. Asked if a Big Game fixture was something Exeter could ever consider, Baxter said: “Our challenge is where would we go?
“There are not that many stadiums around that are that much bigger. Exeter City is no bigger, Plymouth Argyle is not much bigger, so we then have to start going to Bristol, to Wales and by doing that we are moving so far away from our demographic that I don’t think we would sell the tickets.
“Harlequins, you just walk across the road, that is the reality. It was a great occasion. I thought Harlequins did it really well. I thought the atmosphere was great before the game. There are no complaints from us about that. We didn‘t turn up, they did… what we can now do is show our supporters that we care a lot. That is always the best step forward.”
Newcastle are next up at Sandy Park this Saturday and they have never been the biggest of attractions. For instance, the Falcons fixture attracted the lowest attendance at Exeter last season, a crowd of 9,376 watching, and it will be interesting how many turn up on this occasion with the Chiefs opting for a 2:30pm kick-off just a few hours before England host France in the 4:45pm Six Nations start at Twickenham.
“The reality is we have got to address a lot of things,” reckoned long-serving Exeter boss Baxter about the current credit crunch hitting them at the turnstiles. “Our crowd numbers work on numerous factors. Nobody is so ignorant not to understand that there is an inflation issue going on at the moment, there is price rise issues.
“I always think, ‘What are we as a sport?’ We are the left-over money so to speak. We are the leisure portion of someone’s salary left over at the end of the week, the end of the month. That is what people decide to spend their money on or not to. The onus on us is to provide good value entertainment.
“The argument over ticket pricing would be a non-stop one – we have got to look at things like that as a club, have we got the prices at the correct level. Then I fully understand that my job is to make sure that the level of entertainment on the field can merit people wanting to come and watch it again.
“As I have said many times, and this is probably the disappointing thing from the Quins game, it’s not the winning and losing that enthralls the crowd, it’s the actions and the emotion and the way the team perform and behave and show how important things are. That is what really enthralls a crowd and gets them coming back again and creates those big days and big atmospheres and makes a real spectacle.
“Without doubt, that is our job on the field. The off-the-field stuff we can only influence a little bit. The on-the-field stuff I wouldn’t say many people would have been rushing to buy a ticket for the Newcastle game having watched us perform on the TV at Quins.
“That is our responsibility, and then the corporate side, the business side of the club, their responsibility is to get the packaging right around the ticketing pricing, food, drink, hospitality and the day that we provide here that we will work together to try and create the most of it.
“We are all working towards the same thing. We think we are going to get that but without a doubt my job is to make sure we produce something people want to come and watch. That makes everyone else’s job a lot easier.”
Sandy Park Gallagher Premiership regular season attendances
2018/19 – 11 home games: 9 crowds in excess of 10,000 – highest 12,921; average crowd 11,988;
2019/20 – 7 home games: 7 crowds in excess of 10,000 – highest 13,593; average crowd 12,412;
2021/22 – 12 homes games; 10 crowds in excess of 10,000 – highest 14,876; average crowd 12,199;
2022/23 – 8 homes games; 3 crowds in excess of 10,000 – highest 13,537; average crowd 10,465.
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