Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Does expansion add up?

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The Hurricanes, as of Friday morning, had sold only 8,000 tickets to their first home game of the season - and that included season ticket holders. Photo / Getty Images
The Hurricanes, as of Friday morning, had sold only 8,000 tickets to their first home game of the season - and that included season ticket holders. Photo / Getty Images

In 2004, the Observer newspaper in Britain ran a series called The Game That Ate Itself - a look at how greed threatened to undo football with poor attendances, expensive tickets, falling TV audiences, too many games, too many predictable outcomes, and falling grassroots numbers.

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That will sound familiar to those New Zealand rugby fans who reacted negatively to the recent Sanzar proposal to increase teams from 15 to 17 in 2016, adding a sixth South African team and an Argentinian side. Former Springbok World Cup-winning skipper Francois Pienaar is the latest to criticise the expansion plans and to embrace the "less is more" mantra. All Black legend Sean Fitzpatrick has said likewise.

It resonates with those who see that the Hurricanes, as of Friday morning, had sold only 8,000 tickets to their first home game of the season - and that included season ticket holders.

Now, there is a proposal to boost Super Rugby team numbers to 18, possibly basing the latest addition in Europe. The impetus comes from South Africa - the cash-rich, most powerful partner of Sanzar - and a European franchise could end regular South African noises made about playing in the Northern Hemisphere instead of Super Rugby; heard mostly when they are fighting to get their way by introducing yet another South African team.

Another franchise in Europe would mean the South Africans could bring European-based players back into the fold, a move which will have the happy by-product (for them) of exposing their overseas players to the pace and verve of Super Rugby, thereby preparing them better for internationals.

It is not clear how this proposal will affect New Zealand teams but the NZRU is making soothing sounds that, for example, travel schedules will not unduly increase. That remains to be seen, as does the mind-boggling task of how such a far-flung competition might work. It is not known how fans might react to a competition which - as seems likely - will probably see more teams simply not playing each other.

The natural inclination is to complain about the greed; the dangers of over-exposure, complications and fan exhaustion. But it may not be that, to turn Pienaar's phrase around, more is less.

Let's go back to The Game Which Ate Itself, which prophesied that football would falter and possibly collapse under the weight of its own bloated intestines. In 2004-05, overall English Premier League attendances were 12.8 million, with an average attendance across all 20 clubs of 33,900.

In the 2012-13 season, total attendance was 13.6 million, with a 35,921 average across all clubs. So much for the doom and gloom.

The most attended club in 2004-05, with an average of 67,871, was Manchester United. In 2012-13, the same club was averaging 75,530. The bottom club in 2004-05 was Fulham, with an average attendance of 19,800. Nine years later, least-attended club Queens Park Rangers was hosting an average of 17,800 people (Fulham were over 25,000).

In this 2013-14 season, the picture is much the same. Manchester United (even with their current difficulties) still have 75,000 average crowds. That's 25 per cent more than the next club, Arsenal, although the bottom club in attendance terms (Swansea) are packing in over 20,000 each home match - a figure the Hurricanes (average attendance last year of under 11,000, worst in Super Rugby) would kill for.

In 2006, South African Super Rugby attendances averaged about 34,000 fans per game, Australia 24,000, and New Zealand 22,000. In 2013, South Africa averaged 26,800, Australia 17,500 and New Zealand 15,700. TV viewers have stayed strong but new blood is needed to increase viewing numbers - hence Argentina and Europe being invited to the party.

All of which suggests Super Rugby has a fan attendance problem that the Premier League doesn't. There is already a trend to smaller stadia and TV avoids focusing on the glaringly empty seats at the Cake Tin, for example. The prevailing view is, if broadcasting is paying the bills, who cares?

Even if Super Rugby doesn't eat itself, it may yet not be beyond broadcasting itself to death. It may also be that, like the EPL, the rich get richer and more powerful. Only time will tell whether the 'Super 18' is a master stroke or just a stroke.

- Herald on Sunday

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