"Don't Make Us Come And Get You" – Rugby Is Dying

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6-0. Yes, 6 – 0. The lowest score in Super rugby history and it happened last Saturday. Not only that, it happened between two of the competitions proudest franchises, the Crusaders and the Highlanders. Tragedy.  In between the fumbled passes, botched scrums and terrible kicking there was something that resembled rugby, but it was a warped version – confused, uninspired and unskilled. It was broken and I’m afraid rugby as a whole is too. If you listened carefully,  over the mumble of the crowd and the bored ramblings of the commentators,  you could almost hear the final breathe of interest being exhaled by the rugby watching public. It was the most boring thing I’ve witnessed this year… and I work at council.

Today Eddie O’ Sulivan echoed what many die hard fans have secretly been thinking, rugby isn’t worth the effort anymore. He essentially blames the new law changes, which may be part of the problem, but it isn’t the whole story.

If you live in the Auckland area, have a look at the Blues latest marketing campaign. Right there on those big billboards you can see an illustration of  how rugby fans have been treated in the professional era – with arrogance and disdain. Ok, maybe not disdain, but we’ve been taken for granted.

So picture the billboard. Ali Williams is on the beach physically carrying a surfer against his will, presumably back to a half empty Eden Park. The slogan? “Don’t make us come and get you”. Not only does the campaign reek of desperation,  it’s also a particularly good example of the NZRFU’s assumption that we are somehow obligated to watch rugby.  They might as well say, “never mind the product, you’ll take what’s given to you. Oh,  and we’ll be mighty pissed off if we have to expend any energy actually getting you here”.

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It’s long been taken for granted that the New Zealand public will always watch rugby, so it’s safe to focus on things like TV revenue and expansion of the game in to other markets. Hence the development of a ridiculously extended rugby season (cricket should be all we think about right now) and the loss of afternoon rugby, all for the sake of greater TV coverage. Unfortunately, it seems as long as lots of people can watch it, it doesn’t matter how the game is played.

People like watching games on TV that have an atmosphere, which is generally created by having a full stadium of excited fans. Unfortunately people are reluctant to pay for tickets to watch 30 men drop a dewy ball in the thick fog of a freezing Southern night. Remember the final in Canterbury, I think it was NPC, where the fog was so thick you literally couldn’t see anything? Even if you did want to watch, you’d have to get Sky to see it live. Which is fine for some, but surely , if watching rugby is part of our duty as New Zealanders as the NZRFU imply, at least one game could be provided free-to-air per week. The NFL does this and so does the NBA.

Essentially, the horse has been put before the cart – trying to sell a brand overseas whilst simultaneously devaluing it at home. I’m not sure this approach will garner any long term benefits for global exposure. It’s hard to get people overseas excited when you don’t have anyone actually supporting the game here. If the game is exciting – which rugby has in the past been –  both people in New Zealand and overseas will find a way to watch.

I’ve talked about this before, but it seems the way players are treated is part of the problem as well. Who are these faceless men we are meant to support? I know they like coca cola and driving through the country in sponsored cars, but so what? Oddly, though the NZRFU are clearly focused on capitalistic pursuits, they run their PR like communists. The media are afraid to say anything for fear of being blacklisted, and it seems the players are too. This has transferred into how the game is played on the field. No wonder we lack playmakers at the moment, they’re all too scared to be individuals. If Saturday’s Crusaders vs. Highlanders game was architecture it would be a Soviet building -no character, no creativity and very, very shoddy.

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As we all know, or at least anyone over ten knows, it wasn’t always this way. I remember watching the Blues vs. Crusaders semifinal match at Lancaster Park . Zinzan Brooke was screaming at the ref and Merhtens was calmly guiding the proceedings. The crowd was packed and at times I was unable to put my feet on the ground in the crammed embankment. We screamed like madmen for a Crusaders win and the rugby was brilliant. We were excited, the players were passionate and the game meant something. Somewhere, Andrew Merhtens is shedding a tear.

Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve articulated even half of what’s wrong with rugby at the moment, but I’m equally unsure about whether I’ll watch any more to find out.

– David

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “"Don't Make Us Come And Get You" – Rugby Is Dying

  1. super rugby peaked in 96.

  2. or was it 97.
    the year when the blues beat the hurricanes 45 – 42 at eden park.
    i don’t mean to sound like ice cube but that year was a good year.

  3. Nice post. I completely agree, Super rugby (god I hate that term) is killing the game. Which is a shame because it could’ve been the perfect way for rugby to take over League in a professional sense.

    “at least one game could be provided free-to-air per week”

    I assume you mean live as well, because Prime show two games a week but they’re delayed coverage.

    I’ve written quite a few times about how I feel the broadcasting should be handled (each game sold separately) but you know, media monopoly etc etc

  4. The NZRFU’s idea of ‘growing the product’ seems to be just to add more games. The Tri Nations was already becoming a bore when some marketing genius decided to add another round. Remember when it was exciting to watch a test against the Aussies or the Saffas? Now they play 3 or 4 times a year, and some top players are rested. Lame. Then they let Robbie Deans go to Oz.

  5. Duncan

    David really does work at council folks. Hence my replying on his behalf. He texted me to tell you all that he did mean live coverage, because no one gives a shit about delayed coverage.
    That’s David’s bit over. Now it’s Duncan speaking his own mind. I want to publically confess that I didn’t watch a single game of Super 14 last year, or Air NZ Cup. I watched maybe 50 games of league, a sport that seven or eight years ago I was barely conversant with, and thought was a bit stupid compared to rugby. But in 2009, as products, they’re in different worlds. The privately-owned (I think this is the crux of the entire issue) clubs in the NRL have personality and personalities. I think what Brett Stewart’s accused of is horrible, but the fact is that it was Manly’s decision as to how to respond to it. In New Zealand, Steve Tew would’ve been all over that in no time. Maybe it’s not the best example (it definitely isn’t, actually), but the entire character of the rugby competitions in New Zealand is grey and lifeless compared to the NRL or the particularly the NBA, where the owners and GMs ae half the attraction. The players speak their crazy minds straight to a camera and post it on youtube. I think FreeDarko posted this, but IMAGINE a New Zealand rugby player just filming themselves and upping this shit:

    Never happen. And that’s one of a thousand reasons why I just can’t care too much anymore.

  6. a teacher at school mentioned the other day that over the pas couple of years the rugby club near his house has gradually changed its sign from ‘New Members Welcome” to “NEW PLAYERS NEEDED”. Maybe they need the blues’ kidnapping prowess to improve recruiting. i don’t know. maybe everyone is playing netball these days. or touch. the touch scene in the park near my house seems to be thriving almost beyond containment.

  7. @ duncan

    it’s true – mark cuban would not be mark cuban if he somehow existed in the world of NZ rugby. (plus the alternate strip for the NZ s14 franchises is…grey.)

    there’s just too much product now. and the product doesn’t stack up. there are other things to watch. i’m a hurricances fan but i found myself switching over to the celtics v cavs game last week.

    the season should be short, like NFL. but somehow we have to fit the NPC in to keep grassroots going, and also sneak in a tri nations and a northern hemisphere tour – and a bledisloe cup game in an overseas location…it doesn’t work. less is more.

  8. David

    @Duncan

    I’m interested you think private vs. public ownership is the crux of the issue. In one way, I think you’re right – privatisation would lead to more freedom of expression in some areas, but I also think it would lead to an inevitable decline in focus on the All Blacks as the high point of rugby. If you look at all the privatised sports (with the exception of soccer, I think) international competition is almost an afterthought. That’s ok for basketball, but I think rugby is unique in its level of nationalism.

    Look at the professionalisation of cricket – I’m pretty sure we’ll see some huge impacts on national sides.

  9. David

    I guess my question is, do you think the privatisation of clubs would lead to the downfall of nationalism in rugby? And is that preferable?

    Also, in these economic times, can we trust that anyone could keep these clubs afloat? Reading Simmons article on the economic future of the NBA made me very nervous.

  10. Duncan

    The English counties and IPL are privately run and cricket is probably the most internationally focused of all sports (though obviously this is contentious in Twenty20). I think the thing which makes international competition a focal point is a really vibrant following in a number of countries. If a team sport has that (soccer, rugby, cricket) then that becomes the pinnacle. If it lacks it (league, Aussie rules, basketball – which only recently had teams thatcould stand up to the US, and only through the latter fielding second-rate teams) then the clubs dominate. Obviously there are going to be contentious issues between clubs and national bodies, but if you work out decent international windows and compensation they shouldn’t be unresolvable. I just think that the Super franchises are dull as hell precisely because they all have the same hyper-conservative owner. They’re all marketed in the same way, they all feel exactly the same. There is no significant difference between any New Zealand franchise.
    The financial thing is a bit worrying, but in the free market bad clubs fail, and good ones succeed. In super rugby badly run clubs with no results persist forever in their mediocrity. Business failure is painful on a personal level for those involved and their stakeholders (in this case, the fans), but ultimately creates an opening into which a new, better business can appear. Guaranteed survival leads to campaigns like the one you criticise above, and stodgy rugby. Is anyone scared of getting dropped? Is anyone playing for a huge contract or to become a star? The majority are playing to retain their jerseys, a few to become All Blacks… Maybe this is a long bow to draw, but I feel like the lack of real individual flair we see right now (vs the jaw-dropping way new stars constantly emerge in the NRL/NBA) is attributable to the same lack of diversity in ownership.

  11. Duncan

    @richard – Yeah that’s exactly it… The Air NZ cup is basically the equivalent of baseball’s farm club system, or it should be. right now Southern hemisphere rugby has five products, only two of which (the tri-nations and curry cup) seem to be working. The Air NZ cup should be run concurrently with an elongated Super rugby, as a feeder comp a la The Bartercard cup. You can throw up your arms in horror at the end of a tradition, but if you really cared you’d go to Air NZ cup games, and no one does anymore. Club rugby can be played alongside it, as an effective feeder to the feeder… It’s none of it palatable, but the current engine is far broken that there’s a real danger of a cultural swing that’ll change the country. I mean, the Warriors are a near-sellout across town while the blues beat a shit team in front of an av crowd at Albany… If the league guys have another huge year and rugby keeps going this way then you’d have to suggest that the warriors are the biggest franchise in town – if they’re not already. that’s a massive, unthinkable cultural shift to have occured, one unthinkable 20 years ago. Obviously the ABs will always be out heart, but seriously, give us five more years of this rubbish rugby and see who cares at the end. My guess is a lot of old dudes trying to recapture something (Phil Gifford sounds like he still watches every game), and not many more.

  12. David

    I’m not sure the IPL is a great example, because we don’t have Shane Bond playing for the black caps precisely because of its existence (well more precisely the existence of the rebel league and the IPL) – but overall I think privatisation could be an option… but I’m no rogernomics freak. Also, it seems that as far as rugby in New Zealand goes, there just isn’t the same amount of money availiable. In a way, it actually is a public good (like street lighting) – everyone agrees it should exist but I’m not sure anyone would be willing to pay individually for it. I think the answer is that we simply need smarter, younger people running the sport. It seems that the powers that run rugby currently are ex rugby players. That could be completely wrong but it feels that way… and just because you can play on the field doesn’t mean you can run a viable buisness.

    They don’t get that in the modern era people have a thousand more options than watching rugby on a Friday night. I’m sure it’s marketing 101 or whatever, but this is the era of constant and instantaneous gratification. If something isn’t working, we can find something else that does, very easily. Which is why those advertisements for the Blues astound me… the sort of arrogance implyed, as though they resent finally having to work for their audience.

  13. tom

    Out last night in town I was involved in a big conversation about how no-one goes to rugby anymore and night games was the one thing that everybody agreed was a major problem. When you look at the most successful outdoor stadium sports in the world, European league football and the NFL, night games are kept to a minimum and the ones that are scheduled are usually the blockbuster of the round. In the Premier League the first game will kick off at 12:30 then a bunch at 3 and a final one at 4:30. And they don’t ever have Friday night games – do they know something our schedulers don’t?

    I hate when sport bows to TV programmers who should know that if the product is good enough people will watch anyway and if it’s shit (which super rugby is) then they won’t no matter how convenient the time.

    The last time I went to an Air NZ game was two or more years ago at Lancaster Park, was a shield game against Waikato and there were maybe 5000 people there. The game was good but it was damn miserable sitting for a couple of hours in near freezing temeratures in a huge empty stadium surrounded by empty seats with no noise. That sort of crowd in chc of all places should tell those in charge that their product is now worthless. In the mid nineties a Shield game v Waikato would draw 30,000 minimum and most of those would probably watch the warm up game too.

  14. Did any of you read Jerome Kaino’s interview in the Sunday star times yesterday? Where he said that his most loyal fans, his two sisters, didn’t go to the blues/ Cheetahs game on Friday, because they’re sick of rugby. ‘‘They actually can’t wait for the league season to start, they think rugby has become boring, so they can’t be bothered watching anymore’ he then goes on to say that he understands as “some of it hasn’t been flash, has it?’’ Its sad when the players family don’t even want to watch the games, and the players themselves think rugby isn’t that ‘flash’ anymore..

  15. Duncan

    Wow. That’s incredible. And maybe a sign of light that he made those statements. I wonder if he’ll get the bash from his PR people for it? In most good socialist states you’d be sent to the gulag for daring to question the status quo like that.
    Sounds like his family’s pretty onto it though. Apparently 5,000 watched the Blues on Friday night, at 7.30pm the following night there were 17,000 at the Warriors. That’s a pretty freaking amazing disparity.

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  17. Tony

    I don’t think privatisation would affect nationalism per se, that would depend on which cities had clubs and how you monitored salaries. The All Blacks would play less but I don’t think I would really care. I am pretty sick of the trinations and northern hemisphere tours that we always dominate.

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