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Trouble at Thomond Park turnstiles

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PRO 14    

Trouble at the Thomond turnstiles? The startling drop off in numbers at Munster matches laid bare

Thomond Park will be buzzing on Saturday. Old rivals Leinster are in Limerick, the sold-out signs went up weeks ago for the Irish interprovincial derby, and the festive atmosphere should guarantee chosen charities Cliona’s Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society a healthy fund-raising harvest.

However, the sight of a stadium record 26,267 in attendance is the exception – not the rule – for Munster at home these days on the banks of the Shannon.

When the redeveloped venue opened in 2008/09, you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money. Such was the demand, the 10-game home programme attracted a 25,384 per game average. Kerching!

The good times were rolling at a club that won two European Cups in three seasons and they kept rolling. Average attendance was 24,569, 21,766, 22,059 across the three following seasons.

Then came the crash. Legendary trophy winners moved on or retired while new faces grappled with brisk coaching turnover, four different figureheads in six seasons. It had turnstile consequences.

After attracting 20,000-plus crowds to 34 of 45 matches hosted in their first four campaigns at the revamped ground (22 sell-outs), only 28 of the following 71 have enjoyed 20,000+plus attendances (10 sell-outs).

The blows stood out. An October 2012 European Cup match against Edinburgh was the first time a home fixture in that tournament accommodated walk-up match-day sales. In the end, 22,146 paid in.

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Next, an October derby the following year with Leinster only attracted 20,646. Meanwhile, Paul O’Connell’s last home game in May 2015 brought in just 16,158, a fixture that was a league semi-final.

Come the 2015/16 season, which ended with Munster requiring last-day victory in the league to qualify in sixth place for the Champions Cup, average attendance had declined to 16,991, 8,393 down from their 2008/09 benchmark.

Research by the club identified price wasn’t the main issue. Inconvenient, TV-dictated kick-off times were more to blame, quite the issue when people travel long distances. Apparently, only around 30 percent of tickets are ever Limerick-bought. Also, some people began only using their season and 10-year tickets for certain games rather than all matches they paid for, leaving official attendances at odds with the number actually present in the ground.
Anthony Foley’s tragic passing was the prime motivator that reconnected lapsed supporters with the club and repopulated terraces in 2016/17. There was a 20,449 average, five of 13 matches sold out.

However, there are still stones on the road. Average attendance last season dropped back to 17,841 last term, their second lowest in 10 seasons despite the allocation of 5,000 reduced priced junior tickets to every Thomond Park game, and all-time nadir was encountered seven months ago.

A season’s work boiled down to a knockout stage league game versus Edinburgh. However, just 10,205 stumped up. Coming in at 1,532 below the previous low watermark, this was still a five-figure crowd many PRO14 rivals would cherish.

But this is Munster. Their stadium was expensively redeveloped to accommodate two-and-half-times that capacity as frequently as possible, not set a lowest ticket sale for 116 matches played so far at the revamped venue.

Encouragingly, this black mark didn’t rock the foundation the way it might have done some years ago when the club was heavily in the red and the outlook was bleak despite upbeat public pronouncements.

It was April 2014, just before a European Cup quarter-final at home to Toulouse, when chief executive Garrett Fitzgerald was adamant Munster would never fade into obscurity like Biarritz, the now PRO D2 French team they had beaten to lift their first Heineken Cup in 2006.

“There is too much belief and too much respect within the province to allow that to happen,” he insisted. “If you believe in what you are doing and you do it properly, if you work hard and have the right attitude and approach, you will always be there or thereabouts.

“Some parts of rugby are getting like football and money is having an influence over genuine rugby endeavour, so to be doing well in the league and competing strongly in Europe with some outfits in a financially better position is a big achievement.”

Two years later, having secured a last-day European Cup qualification from the league, Munster were forecasting a €1.95million deficit in their annual accounts. Declining gate income and a rise in player/staff costs wasn’t helped by successive European pool stage failures.

Their AGM laid it on thick, financial controller Philip Quinn highlighting the stark situation by comparing 2015/16’s figures with 2009/10, the period not long after Munster twice conquered Europe and supplied the majority of players to the Grand Slam-winning Ireland team.

Numbers were sobering. Gate income down by €2.7m. Failure to reach European quarter-finals in 2011, 2015 and 2016 cost €0.55m. Season ticket sales fell by €0.3m. Decrease in tickets sold through grassroots clubs was €1.04m. All the while, professional team costs increased by €1.7m over the six years.

Fast forward to 2018’s AGM and Munster, having since appeared in two successive European semi-finals, now sound buoyant even though they reported a cash-flow loss of just under €0.9m for last season.

When gate receipts crashed, the IRFU loan they took had for Thomond Park was renegotiated. It would be paid off fully by 2027, not 2017 as originally agreed, but they have made promising inroads to this debt, reducing it in 12 months to €6.9m from €9.6m.

They have also unveiled their grand vision for future prosperity, encapsulating it in a 2018-2021 strategic plan that boldly states: ‘Munster wants to be THE BEST CLUB IN THE WORLD.’

Brash statements in Irish rugby can generate negative pressures. It was 2010 when Ulster announced equally ambitious aims to be world’s best. That target ended ignominiously in 2018. Two high profile players sacked. Coaches ousted. Their CEO exiting a tattered brand that only became world class in its failure to deliver on giddy promises.

Hard times, though, appear to have left Munster better positioned to prosper than Ulster. Gone is the era of blinkered expectation that the good times would never end. Gone, too, the ignoring of internal weaknesses.

With Inside Track, a UK-based consultancy, formulating the club’s strategic plan, and Dublin sports marketing company, Ringers Creative, gauging how the province is publicly perceived, Munster are now a €16.9m annual revenue business that isn’t afraid of critically looking at itself in the mirror.

The next few weeks will be important. Saturday’s sell-out against Leinster, followed on January 19 by another potential full house against Exeter in Europe, will greatly finesse the 16,891 average attendance they currently show for five games in Limerick this season.

What is imperative, though, is not giving less regular supporters a reason not to come back. Winning is necessary. However, Leinster don’t fear Thomond. They have won four of their last seven visits and remain the club Munster have had to envy since tables were turned in their rivalry with the seminal 2009 Croke Park European semi-final result.

“You have to respect what Leinster are delivering,” said Fitzgerald before taking leave of absence this summer for major surgery, leaving Quinn in interim charge.

“Given the population, the commercial clout and wealth that’s in a capital city, and given the rugby specialisation within a large number of schools in the greater Dublin area and in some areas of the province of Leinster, it’s no surprise they are where they are.

“They have done exceptionally well. They run a very professional organisation and have to be complimented on that.’
Complimented, yes. But also reminded the gap can be closed. A rare full house at Thomond can help make that point.

MUNSTER AT THOMOND
TOTAL  AVERAGE    +20,000   SELL-OUTS
08/09   253,846   25,384    All 10 games   10
09/10   245,699    24,569    9/10 games      4
10/11   304,730     21,766     9/14 games      4
11/12   242,652     22,059    6/11 games       4
12/13   198,300     19,830   5/10 games       2
13/14   210,806     19,164    5/10 games       1
14/15   183,119       18,311    3/10 games       1
15/16   169,916      16,991    2/10 games      0
16/17   265,847     20,449   7/13 games      5
17/18   196,256     17,841     4/13 games      1
18/19   84,457       16,891     2/5 games       0

2,355,628 tickets have been sold for the 116 games played so far in the 10-and-a-half years since Thomond Park’s redevelopment, an average of 20,307 per game

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Trouble at the Thomond turnstiles? The startling drop off in numbers at Munster matches laid bare