After the highest placed Australian team finished below the lowest New Zealand team in this year’s Super Rugby competition – and then Western Force was cut from the league – it’s fair to say it was a year to forget for Australian rugby. The domestic problems also seemed to impact the national team, as they were humiliated at home by the All Blacks in a 54-34 loss to open the Rugby Championship, a result which shocked many people around the rugby world. On the day this was down to a bad team performance, but we could see results like this continue if Australian rugby doesn’t sort out the mess it is in.
One of the most significant issues is on the financial side and this is down to the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) and Super Rugby. Super Rugby takes up a large percentage of the ARU’s budget. Last year the ARU spent $120 million on 200 professional players, while only $4 million was spent on grassroots rugby nationwide. This has led to the demise of club rugby around Australia as all the money in the system goes to the Super Rugby teams. The ARU is running the game from the top- down, rather than the bottom up, which will have serious consequences for years to come.
The lack of funding for local rugby has seen a drop in participation rates as a survey carried out by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed that only 57,900 boys played rugby union in 2012. This was an overall rate of 4%, making rugby union the 9th highest out of all sports. The sport with the highest number of participants was soccer with 309,700, a rate of 21.7%. Younger kids aren’t being attracted to play union anymore, they would rather check out soccer or rugby league.
This is likely down to Super Rugby as the teams are performing poorly and the next generation isn’t being inspired to take part. Attendances are falling. In 2017 the Waratahs had an average attendance of 14,500 and their highest attendance was 18,381. The Reds’ highest was 18,781 and, if you combine these two, the average is still less than the Lions’ highest, which was 38,716.
In South Africa and New Zealand, rugby is their main sport. This is why they do not struggle with attendances as much. Rugby in Australia must compete with lots of other sports and they haven’t adapted and tried new things to attract new audiences. These potential fans would rather watch another sport and, honestly, who could blame them?
Why would they want to watch the Waratahs play against the Sunwolves, where the atmosphere will be awful because the stadium is only at 15% full? You can’t blame them for choosing an NRL game over Super Rugby, especially as there always seems to be a good game between two local rivals played on a packed out local ground.
The ARU is losing more and more fans as the ones who aren’t going to other sports are going to their local clubs. The Shute Shield competition in Sydney has seen a resurgence in attendance numbers as fans prefer the local rivalries and good atmospheres. Although this competition produces 65% of all professional rugby players in the long term, the ARU doesn’t pay them a penny. In the ’90s this was the primary rugby competition in Australia and it provided the Wallabies with most of the players from the World Cup winning sides of 1991 and 1999.
There have been attempts to revitalise club rugby by introducing the National Rugby Championship or NRC, but these are essentially just scaled down versions of the Super Rugby sides. The issue here is that fans do not have a real connection to these clubs because they have only just been established. The ARU must have a long hard think about Super Rugby and should consider their membership. For me, Super Rugby is a dead competition in Australia and they need to change something to regain the fans they once had. If not, then rugby in Australia will face serious consequences which could ruin Australian rugby for a long time.
Something must change as the status quo just isn’t working.
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