Zurich Premiership proves World Cup winner too
There was an unmistakable air of confidence at the official launch of the Zurich Premiership season at Twickenham last week.
So buoyant are rugby chiefs that Howard Thomas, chief executive of Premier Rugby, spent no more than three minutes at the lectern trumpeting the latest signings, both players and commercial partners, rather than the interminable cheer-leading speeches that usually mark such occasions.
There was no need for him to say much, the success of the English domestic game speaks for itself. Attendances have been rising year on year and for the coming season every one of the 12 clubs has reported a growth in season ticket sales that adds up to a 19 per cent increase overall, helping more and more clubs predict a financial future that is all black.
And this weekend's season opener at Twickenham a double header featuring matches between London Irish and Harlequins, Saracens and Wasps is expected to attract a record crowd of about 50,000.
During the brief formal part of the season launch, Thomas announced two new sponsors for the Premiership, O, extending their interest from the international to the domestic scene, and Gillette, coming to rugby for the first time.
George Allan, Gillette's marketing director, said the company had spent a lot of time and energy researching whether the game fitted into its strategy and found the results compelling.
“You can't get any better than England winning the World Cup. We think it will stimulate more interest and that that will be a long term thing. It is not so much us jumping on the bandwagon, it is us getting involved in a sport we believe will continue to grow.” There are problems, of course, as Thomas is prepared to admit. “Our biggest challenge is our stadia. We need help to develop them. Ten months ago we began a consultation exercise with the government and bodies like Sport England and we have made progress, although we have not got any firm solutions,” he says.
Many sports, even football, would kill for a problem like attendances out-growing their arenas, but then the round ball game cannot boast the ultimate ace up its sleeve: the World Cup, which is still touring schools and clubs helping to beat a drum for rugby.
Thomas and his clubs are, of course, happy to acknowledge the importance of the World Cup dividend for the game. “That success has given a feel-good factor and it comes through at every single level, it gives everyone a realisation of what can be achieved. We have moved from being the number eight sport in this country to the number two sport in terms of attendances and in particular interest,” he says.
But equally those at the heart of the club game believe that the golden sheen given to the game by England's triumph, while priceless, has merely added impetus to the momentum already being made.
Niels de Vos, chief executive of Sale Sharks, uses Jason Robinson's career at the club to describe the “dramatic growth curve” the Manchester club has experienced in recent seasons.
“On the day of his first appearance [in November 2000], we got a crowd of 1,800 people. In his first appearance after the World Cup final, three years later, we had 10,500,” he says.
But that growth was not achieved simply with a Robinson try in Sydney. At the beginning of last season Sale moved from Heywood Road to Edgeley Park, the home of Stockport County, after their average attendance in 2002/2003 reached 5,300, just 300 short of capacity.
The World Cup then pushed Sale's end-of-season attendances towards Edgeley Park's capacity of 11,000, but De Vos knows that the fresh impetus it brought has now largely gone, leaving the clubs to make the most of it.
Without the historical fan base that Gloucester or Leicester benefit from, but with a huge population to draw from, Sale are a club that can particularly benefit from the higher profile of the game.
That is reflected in their approach to building attendances, which consists both of expanding the pool of Sale fans while also dipping into a bigger well of rugby people. “Our focus is to concentrate on the quality of rugby people can see, and we are are doing that through having 12 full internationals in our 15. But we also tell people they can can come to any game and see a Martin Johnson or Jonny Wilkinson,” De Vos says.
The triumph of English rugby is that while Sir Clive Woodward's team may not have advanced since that great night in Sydney, the Premiership clubs have harnessed the victory and driven themselves on using it. And although they are keen to strike a blow for independence and are moving out of the national team's shadow, De Vos' marketing pitch shows that they know full well who their biggest draw cards are, and why.