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We need to see fireworks every week, not just at Old Trafford
PAY freezes, benefit caps, public sector job losses and the soon to be introduced bedroom tax – wherever you look austerity measures are squeezing family budgets hard.
When people’s wage packets don’t go as far as they did four or five years ago beer and leisure are the first luxuries to feel the squeeze.
Looking at the uniform drop, match for match on last season, in attendance figures across Super League it is clear that finding £21 on match day has suddenly become too much for some fans, some of whom will gaze into an empty freezer on a Friday evening and decide to go shopping instead.
Some, alas, are so skint they can do neither. This is the harsh economic reality rugby league has to live with in 2013.
The gates at last weekend’s Warrington v Saints and the previous game at Langtree Park against Leeds are down by nearly 2,000 and 3,000 respectively on last year’s figures.
It is not all gloom and doom – crowds in the strong rugby league towns have held up remarkably well if you do a quick historical comparison with gates during other recent recessions.
Let’s take November 1982, the month Alan Bleasedale’s Boys from the Blackstuff was broadcast on BBC2 for the first time with unemployment topping 3million. Saints played Castleford at home and drew in only 3,283 paying fans. The following Saturday a meagre 2,365 saw Billy Benyon’s men knock Fulham out of the John Player Trophy at Knowsley Road.
However, there is no room for complacency. The road to 1982, attendances wise, no doubt started a decade previously. Rugby league has come a long way to build its active weekly supporter base but it should be careful not to simply allow fans to drip away because it is easy for a trickle to become a flood.
Rugby league clubs can do nothing about the economy, but what it can do is control its own product.
Maybe it is just too easy to simply use ‘cash-strapped supporters’ as the only reason for crowds dropping. Have the fans rumbled that game’s masters – the governing body and broadcasters – have turned the sport into one in which only one match matters?
The 27 rounds leading up to Old Trafford – those games people are expected to shell out their hard-earned money for – have largely been devalued by making the league table a mere starting grid.
Even the half-cock first weekend of the overblown play-off system is largely a waste of time that does not really eliminate or reward anyone.
As we head into what is looking like an unprecedented triple dip recession we have to give fans full value for money and make every match they attend count or we will lose them.
To do that we need to go back to a top-five play off which gives real advantage to teams finishing as high as they can. That will sharpen every team’s focus on a weekly basis because winning every week would again be important.
We need to see fireworks on the field every week, not just at Old Trafford in October.