Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Rugby: Sevens rugby the sexiest game in town

By Chris Rattue

So you got an invitation to attend the international sevens tournament and thought how clever it was of Wellington to spread its tentacles so wide.

For all of you living many kilometres away from Wellington who received the invitation, try this simple sum.

Take the number of your favourite rugby player, divide it by seven, add your age, throw in Jonah Lomu's salary, and divide by the number of tries France scored against the All Blacks in the World Cup semifinal.

The answer: your household earns more than $40,000 a year.

How do I know? Because the organisers of the just-completed tournament at the new sports stadium near the Wellington railyards spent time working out what you earn and if you could afford the trip.

That invitation was part of a tactical campaign to find prospective sevens watchers interested in a journey to the capital to spend accommodation and entertainment money and fork out $20 to $50 a day for a tournament ticket.

The result: 21,000 pre-bought tickets, which is claimed as a first-day record for an international sevens event. And 29,000 pre-bought tickets for the second day at a stadium which holds 34,500.

And all this to catch glimpses of some of the world's most talented rugby players, even if most are not elite 15-a-side exponents, and a bunch of players from Uruguay, Hong Kong and the Cook Islands who you have never heard of before and will never hear of again.

Wellington outbid other New Zealand venues because it had put in a city-backed bid. The joint capital venture involved the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (60 per cent), the Wellington Rugby Union (30 per cent) and Totally Wellington (10 per cent).

This last group are the clever-clogs who set about finding who liked sevens rugby and then set an advertising campaign to suit. Totally Wellington are a charitable trust backed yearly by $3 million from the Wellington City Council, and $2 million from the private sector. Their mission - to fill the city's hotels, shops, pubs etc.

Their nationwide hunt for sevens fans began in the middle of last year when they had 1000 people surveyed. The result was compared against an established sample of "traditional" rugby watchers.

TW chief executive Trevor Hall says: "We always had the demographic profile of the traditional fan but we wanted to know about sevens.

"The results leaned towards younger, single women. We were a bit surprised by that."

According to Hall, these sevens fans found the game "quite sexy." They also appreciated the simplified rules - hardly a surprise to anyone who has spent the past couple of years doing homemade degrees on the tackled ball rule.

So TW set about scouring the lower half of the North Island, advertising on FM rock stations and designing "sexy" newspaper and billboard advertisements which suggested that Wellington was going to "rock." It's not just about the tournament, you see. It's the parties and pubbing afterwards. TW also went searching for new customers in Wellington. They allied a major part of their campaign to an exhibition of Mexican masters, putting the paintings and the rugby tournament in the same advertisements. There's money in those old paintings, and probably a bit in the wallets of those people looking at them.

The advertising had one over-sized selling point too in Jonah Lomu, who with Christian Cullen and Caleb Ralph won releases from Super 12 duty to play for New Zealand. Hall says Totally Wellington made it clear to the rugby mob that Mr Lomu's presence would be a great help, although it would be just too naughty to suggest that the selection might be influenced by things commercial.

And then that trick they played on the rest of the country - 270,000 mail order "invitations" to selected homes which has resulted in Wellington being booked out.

The key thing here is your rates. The company TW used, Pinpoint, use house values to discover how much the people inside earn. And the house values are worked out from your rates.

The cut off point was $40,000 a year, which thankfully is not too elitist. There are households who will never own three cars and a gin palace who earn $40,000. Still, there's the underlying theme that sports watching could get so costly that it will be taken away from the masses and become the plaything of the rich and glamorous.

If you can fill a ground by attracting certain (high) income groups, why not hike up the ticket prices for everything and let the survey and marketing people do their stuff? Maybe that time has already arrived.

Still, Wellington deserves the applause for getting its act together.

As Hall points out, it is maybe the only city really suited for this type of event. It has a city centre full of interesting and vibrant streets which, unlike Auckland, is close to the stadium.

And Wellington is in for the long haul. They are guaranteed as hosts of the sevens, part of the new 10-tournament world series, for the next two years.

There will be a near $3 million turnover and TW has pledged to use its 10 per cent of any profit to further promote the tournament. Sounds like the sort of sensible stuff which seems to escape that strangely divided entity known as Auckland.

So what did those well-heeled Cantabrians and Aucklanders, those young Palmerston North and Wellington girls, not to mention the art-loving Wellingtonians with a bent for things Mexican, witness over the past couple of days?

Apart from major queue problems at the food and drink outlets, the new stadium is superb, a bowl built from scratch which offers a nice mix of intimacy and grandeur. It has been built with a public transport plan in mind which is summed up by the stadium sign which smacks any newcomer in the eye. "Parking $30. Cash only."

Even then, Wellington has been doing its sums. The average car supposedly holds five people, meaning it's six bucks a head, which equals what public transport costs an average stadium patron. But the bottom line is, they don't want you to bring your car and that $30 sign is a pretty good way of encouraging that.

And what of the sevens series? Just as the prospective patrons have been picked out, so New Zealand and world rugby bosses have set their sights on countries who have yet to discover the joys of lineouts, mauls, the tackled ball rule and, of course, Jonah Lomu.

The new international series veers this year around the highways and byways of international rugby - Stellenbosch, Wellington, Brisbane and Paris, mixed in with Dubai, Punta del Este, Mar del Plata, Suva, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

But there are other plans afoot - namely satellite qualifying tournaments which will presumably involve South American peasants, American jocks, Russian railway workers and Chinese rice growers all coming together in the common name of rugby.

If the 15-a-side game is too complicated even for people who have spent a lifetime watching it, then sevens can be played and understood at many levels. So the sexy sevens have been put in the missionary position, the advance troops for rugby's cause.

The United States, with its money and power, remains the golden prize, even though many reckon rugby has the same chance of gaining an American foothold as there is of Bill and Monica getting back together.

Hall, the ever-optimistic TW promotions man, may not represent rugby administration but he is probably on the money when he says: "I believe they still want rugby to take off in America and sevens is the game to do it with because it is easy to understand.

"America wasn't talked about when we were planning this but you do hear things around the place."

To link it all, Wanganui today, tomorrow the world. Hall says his favourite story involving the organisation of the tournament in Wellington came from a woman in the mayor's department who knew of five young Wanganui girls about to set off for Wellington.

Five young girls are, of course, the very people TW's survey thought might be interested, and whom Hall and his people set about luring to Wellington.

"The woman told me they didn't care that they might not be able to get tickets for Saturday's games. They just wanted to be here, and enjoy the parties afterwards on Saturday night. This is a festival," says Hall.

"I really haven't heard of five young girls who would just hop in a car and drive that distance for rugby before."

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