Scotty Stevenson: Numbers watching Japan rugby should shut up grouches

By Sumo Stevenson

Sam Cane of the Chiefs makes a break. Photo / Getty Images
Sam Cane of the Chiefs makes a break. Photo / Getty Images

And so the annual Super Rugby grumble has begun. I blame the sunshine and the humidity myself, not to mention the Black Caps and their wonderful summer form.

Maybe there's just too much sand in New Zealand's collective crack, too much heat on the vinyl bench seat of the nation, too much salt water in the ears. It's all too hard, right now, to think about union.

It could also be the fact rugby is not exactly the greatest marketer of its own product but whatever the reason, all of a sudden no one seems to be able to grasp the business realities of professional sport.

Expansion? What the hell are they expanding Super Rugby for? How on earth do these conferences work? Why would we even think about giving the biggest Southern Hemisphere rugby market (by far) another side? Stop the madness!

Okay, let's just take a deep breath here and get into it. We'll start with the endless comparisons to the NFL and how successful that competition is, shall we? Yes, let's do that.

Let's think about conferences and expansion.

Here's a 32-team sport with a 16-game regular season, across two conferences and eight divisions, in which it takes a four-year cycle to play every other team in the competition and yet, somehow, this is easier to grasp than an 18-team sport with a 15-game regular season set across two divisions and four conferences in which it takes just a two-year cycle to play every other team in the competition.

Huh? I must be missing something here.

Ah, but of course, the NFL doesn't need to expand into new markets to be successful, I hear you say. Oh really?

If that were true we'd all still be sitting down to watch the Canton Bulldogs play the Dayton Triangles on a double billing also featuring the Rochester Jeffersons and the Frankford Yellow Jackets.

Expansion? Please! The NFL wrote the book on that. And there are still cities crying out for a shot at a franchise.

But why Japan? There is this: Over the weekend, Toshiba and Panasonic played out the final of the Japan Top League.

Close to 25,000 fans filled Price Chichibu Stadium in Tokyo for the match, won 27-26 by the Robbie Deans-coached Panasonic. When was the last time 25,000 New Zealand fans regularly turned up to a Super Rugby Match?

The Japanese Rugby Union may have scored one of the great own goals of the professional rugby era by being so far behind their preparations for this season, but that's not to say there is zero potential with the Sunwolves.

According to Japanese Rugby correspondent Rich Freeman, average attendance at Top League matches increased by 2000 this season, while just five months ago Japanese rugby enjoyed its biggest ever television audience.

The ignorant bashing of Japan as a Super Rugby partner by certain sectors of New Zealand rugby's fanbase reminds me of that time a bunch of people wrote off the All Blacks' visit to Chicago in 2014. You remember the one - when 65,000 people filled Soldier Field.

They also wrote off America's rugby potential. You remember, before the USA sevens team beat the New Zealand sevens team just last year, and before the national body announced its first sanctioned professional league, due to start in April.

And then there is the usual carping that all of this expansion - the new South African franchise, the Sunwolves, and the investment in Argentina, is representative not of a genuine appetite for the game but of standard corporate avarice.

Let us be clear here: if fans want the best players in the Southern Hemisphere playing Super Rugby, the money has got to come from somewhere, and by and large that comes from broadcast revenues. You don't see the NRL complaining about A$2 billion of Murdoch money.

Besides, you can't possibly fret about exceptional players leaving New Zealand shores for lucrative contracts in Europe and then, in the same vexed breath, complain about the sport's local administrators' attempts to raise the revenue to keep them. That makes less sense than the new bonus point structure, and that makes no sense at all.

Anyway, you still have a month to get to grips with it. That's plenty of time for sand in the crack. And plenty of time for cricket as well.

- NZ Herald

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