Iain Morrison: Why the Pro14 numbers don’t add up

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I am an inveterate flickerer with the television remote in hand, and so it was on the opening Friday of the season I found myself jumping between the Pro14 Ospreys-Edinburgh game and the Bristol-Bath battle in what is now known as the Gallagher Premiership.

There wasn’t much difference between the standards of rugby on show but the English contest was a lot more absorbing. This was in part due to the scoreboard which was nip and tuck but more importantly it was an ancient local rivalry, rekindled since Bristol’s promotion back into the Premiership, with a crowd to match. While the Pro14 game attracted 6,000-plus, the English match was watched by 26,000 and change.

Edinburgh playing to empty seats at Murrayfield. Pic: SNS

Edinburgh playing to empty seats at Murrayfield. Pic: SNS

Those sorts of numbers are just one of the reasons that the private equity group CVC Capital Partners has tabled a bid of £275 million
for a 51 per cent stake in England’s Premiership… the whole shebang. The deal is expected to be rejected. Bath owner Bruce Craig in particular is said to be against the deal, which he claims will undervalue the English Premiership. He is probably right, especially if you look at the billions being thrown at football.

CVC Capital Partners know which way is up, they made billions buying and selling Formula 1 and won’t be throwing money at a sport unless they are highly confident of making a killing. BT Sport, Sky, Netflix and Amazon Prime are all competitors for a limited amount of top-class sport available to pay per view television, which is where the crowd numbers are important. Not as a revenue stream – someone calculated that most Premier League football teams could turn a profit if they played behind closed doors – but because television will pay big money to cover an “event” and the only way to transform a sporting contest into an “event” is by attracting big crowds.

The fans made that Bristol-Bath match an occasion but even in England the 26,000 that watched that derby is the exception rather than the rule. In the past decade Premier Rugby has seen its average gate increase from 10,951 (in 2007-8) to 14,240 (in 2017-18). This is a rise of just 3,289 or a paltry 30 per cent over the course of a decade when English rugby was rarely out of the news; they hosted a World Cup in 2015, Rugby Sevens became an Olympic sport and the women’s game spread like wildfire. Little wonder that CVC Partners think they can do better.

The rise in Pro14 crowds over the same period was a little lower at 26 per cent and obviously started from a lower level. Ten years ago the league averaged crowds of 6,790 and last season that figure had risen to 8,549, a jump of 1,759.

Again the jump is a modest one over the course of a decade but at least the Pro14 has an excuse. In the last ten years it has expanded, first into Italy and then South Africa and three of the four expansion teams are to be found at the bottom of the attendance figures league table.

Everyone is cheating because all the teams include season ticket holders whether they have turned up or not. The more interesting statistic would be to count those season ticket holders that had already paid and still didn’t bother attending.

The Cheetahs are cheating more than most because they opened their gates, offering free entry for their first ever Pro14 match, at home against Zebre, and the ruse attracted a healthy crowd of 13,982. If you adjust for this number the Bloemfontein outfit drop below Connacht in the list so the expansion teams actually fill the bottom four places in the attendance league.

Zebre also cheat because the Italian franchise posted an attendance figure of 3,000 on the opening weekend of this season against the Kings. I don’t know what the real figure was but I can guarantee that it wasn’t 3,000 (crowds don’t usually come in round numbers, certainly not with the frequency that Zebre claim) and I’m prepared to bet a pound to a packet of peanuts that the real number is much lower. (Note to Pro14 chief executive Martin Anayi, if you think the Pro14 is the best league in the world, be sure and ask everyone involved to do a proper head count rather than pluck a number from thin air and round it up.)

The other interesting aspect is that Edinburgh Rugby boasts a higher average crowd figure than their vastly more successful west coast rivals! This is obviously thanks to two of the three 1872 Cup matches taking place at Murrayfield last season. The first in December attracted 23,833 and the second in April was watched by 25,353 so it is fair to conclude that Glasgow’s normal gate of 7,351 (ie Scotstoun’s current capacity ahead of a planned expansion) is well above the normal numbers that Edinburgh attract.

The three best supported teams are all Irish, which is no surprise, and it is worrying to note that the Swansea-based Ospreys have not grown their crowd at all over the last ten years and, if their figures are to be believed, Benetton’s crowds have actually fallen since they joined the league in 2010-11. As you’d expect, the Pro14 trails their English rivals. Worcester Warriors are the second worst supported team in the Premiership but their 8,597 average gate would see them fifth in the Pro14, below the Scarlets but above the Cardiff Blues.

Also interesting to note is the healthy rise in crowd numbers if the old ten-club Celtic League had carried on as they were, business as usual. Strip out the expansion clubs from Italy and South Africa, and the average gate jumps to 9,783 in season 2017-18, a commendable 44 per cent rise over the decade. Any league with average gates above the magical 10,000 mark – and the old Celtic League would be close – deserves to be taken seriously.

The point is that when the intangibles that come with big crowds are taken into account the Pro14 expansion makes no sense and those intangibles are more hugely important even if the various unions involved never want to put their baby on Ebay. In the modern era people long to experience real “events”, the big kahuna, the must-attend occasion, which is one reason why old rockers from my era reform and jump back on the tour bus decades after they originally disbanded.

But television hates empty stands (have you watched any of the Currie Cup recently?) so crowds are an integral part of the whole sporting ecosystem.

The higher up the sporting food chain you go the less important the fans’ money becomes, a pittance compared to television’s billions (in football, if not yet in rugby) but, here is the irony, the supporters’ very presence is what persuades the television executives to dig deep in the first place.

In short, if there were absolutely zero crowds for any sporting league there would be the exact same level of television money, zero. Something the Pro14 might bear in mind the next time they want to expand their franchise amid talk to two more South African sides joining.