Johannesburg - Super Rugby’s coming-of-age experiment – the tournament was in its 21st season last year – appears to have come at a huge cost.
Growing the number of teams from 15 to 18, adding three more destinations – Argentina, Japan and Singapore – and introducing a format that still needs explaining a year later were supposed to be rugby administrators’ ways of spreading the southern hemisphere rugby gospel.
But TV ratings and stadium attendance – according to Repucom executive chairperson Kelvin Watt – went down dramatically last season, thanks in no small part to a bloated and ungainly competition played on four continents.
“Where else have you seen a competition where it is run in so many different countries; where you wake up at 04:00 to watch the first game and are still watching the last game at 22:00?” he asked.
“The Super Rugby format is confusing, inconsistent and has too many teams.
“In business, you shouldn’t make it hard for consumers to consume your product – Super Rugby makes it incredibly hard.”
Although he wouldn’t reveal the numbers himself, they paint a damning picture of a tournament that, after steadily losing its appeal with each increase in participating teams, saw its broadcast figures plummet last year.
After the first five rounds of the current format, the numbers were down 47% year on year before arresting themselves at 36% across the board for the whole tournament.
Watt said Australia’s figures were the worst and New Zealand’s were “poor”.
Incidentally, local viewership figures were not as bad – the drop hovered between 15% and 20%.
While not as drastic, stadium attendance figures have hurt the franchises in the form of season ticket sales.
A prominent South African Super Rugby franchise lost as much as 10 000 season ticket sales in the three years from 2013 to last year.
Nevertheless, Watt says that, despite the fact that the same format is at play this year, the problems are not insurmountable.
“It’s bleak, but it’s fixable,” he said. “What’s becoming clear is that the interest in rugby is still high, but the way the product is packaged is not working. The product just needs to be packaged right, like moving some Super Rugby games to Sunday afternoons.”
That said, the tournament is headed for yet another year where it will be using the same disastrous format as last year.
Mindful of this, Super Rugby organising body Sanzaar has made the right noises about rejigging the competition by losing two teams, which have popularly been construed to mean the perennially underperforming Southern Kings (South Africa) and Australia’s Western Force will be relegated next year.
But Watt thinks the powers that be need to do even more:
“They’ve got a year in which to bite the bullet, but then they must go back to something approaching the old format. The Super 12 was where the numbers peaked because, back then, we had strength versus strength.
“They have to go back to something like 12 teams, or 14 at most, because 16 just won’t cut it. Then again, they have an obligation to Argentina and Japan...”
Watt said the only thing that could shift the tournament’s fortunes in South Africa would be a storming run to victory not dissimilar to the Bulls’ in 2007, as a mere place in the final – like the Lions last year – just wouldn’t cut it.
“The good news is that the SA Rugby management understands that and is trying to do something about it,” he said.
“They just need to make good business decisions. Now, they are making what I call fan-centric decisions, as opposed to rugby-centric decisions.
“They think they’re making good rugby decisions by introducing more teams, more players and playing the game across more countries.
"But they need eyeballs and money from people who have so many other things competing for their attention.”