It’s the economy, stupid

A lot has been said and written about dwindling crowds at the Welsh regions’ home games this season but, as yet, no-one has come up with a viable solution to what is becoming a real crisis. Ospreys’ managing director, Mike Cuddy, admitted earlier in the season to being “baffled” about why their stadium is typically less than half full for their games, whilst former rugby chief Gareth Davies called it a “conundrum” as to why the Blues have been selling so few home tickets.

What is clear is that it would be wrong to assume that this is a problem unique to Wales. In 2010, the Australian press regularly bemoaned the alarmingly high number of empty seats at Super 14 matches. At the same time, clubs in the English Premiership expressed concern over a steep drop in attendances compared to previous seasons.

So, how can low attendances be explained? Well, to echo the words of former US President Bill Clinton – it’s the economy, stupid. We still love our rugby, us Welsh, of that I have no doubt. Hundreds of thousands visited the Millennium Stadium this season to watch Wales triumph in the Six Nations and win a coveted third Grand Slam in eight years.

But, times are tough financially for the fans. The WRU can still get away with charging increasingly high prices to watch Wales’ home games and still achieve a sell-out– one, because Wales are playing particularly well at the moment and, two, because international games are an event in themselves, much more than simply a game of rugby. Regional rugby is different – most of us can justify a one-off weekend in the capital to watch Wales play, even during times of economic recession. Paying £25 a ticket, however, to watch a Blues side without its stars, poorly coached, and in a three-quarters empty football ground? No, thanks. I’ll watch it on the box. Families in south Wales are feeling the pinch, and spending money on sub-standard fare is a low priority for most, even for many of the die-hard fans.

There is plenty of academic research that shows how big crowds can improve players performance and, conversely, how improved performances can bring in the crowds. If crowds are allowed to continue to decline, then regional rugby will continue to suffer, creating a vicious circle of worsening performances and fewer attending to see them, eventually leading to more stars choosing to ply their trade on foreign soil.

My solution is not radical, but is simple: the regions must cut the prices of match-day tickets. You don’t have to look too far for a successful example. Welsh football prospered when the national side was able to regularly sell out the Millennium Stadium, with 74,000 in attendance even against the likes of Azerbaijan in 2003. Ticket prices for that match were £3, £5 and a maximum £10. There is little doubt that this was a key factor in Wales getting within a whisker of qualification to a major tournament and a renewed enthusiasm amongst the public for Welsh football.

To their credit, the regions are cottoning on. Kids went free at Shane’s farewell game at the Liberty Stadium, and over 14,000 turned up to witness it. Kids also went free at the Cardiff City Stadium for Martyn Williams’ last game before retirement – only 3,500 were in attendance. The difference, I think, is that the Ospreys performances have been showing real improvement this week and they still have a shot at the title. The Blues, meanwhile, sink ever deeper into the mire, despite a win on the night.

Which comes back to the key things that can turn the tide: better performances, cheaper tickets. Both are in the regions hands.