The New Zealand Rugby Union might be missing the point when they say it is commercial suicide to start Super 14 before March.

The latest TV viewing figures suggest that the NZRU are giving themselves false hope by believing all will be cured if Super Rugby can delay its entrance in future years until the heat of the summer has gone and international cricketers are flinging their pads in the kit bag.

The concern is not whether the New Zealand market wants Super 14 in February, but whether it wants Super 14 at all.

Certainly in its current format, the competition is not engaging the New Zealand public. The decline in viewers has been steady and pronounced.

In the first five weeks of Super 14 in 2006 - February 17 to March 18 - the average audience for games played in New Zealand was 276,000 according to AGB Nielsen.

In 2007, when the competition kicked off on February 2, the average audience for the first five weeks was 186,000. When the competition started on February 15 last year, the average dropped to 178,000 and this year, in the first five weeks, only an average of 141,000 have been tuned in.

Chiefs marketing manager Pat Melsop says it has been equally challenging trying to get people through the turnstiles in February these past few years.

"All our research tells us people don't want Super Rugby in February," said Melsop. "I think everyone [in New Zealand] is singing from the same hymn sheet on that. No one wants to play the first three or four rounds at home.

"We have the Hurricanes and Brumbies at home in the last two rounds which we are stoked about."

When plans were drawn up last year to extend the 2009 playoffs the Blues were going to have to swap their final round fixture with the Crusaders at Eden Park to February 6 - Waitangi Day. They were outraged as instead of a potential full house against their biggest rival, they would have been lucky to have 15,000 at the ground.

The difficulty of these early rounds has been evident this year with only 7500 turning up to the Blues versus Cheetahs match last week at North Harbour. The Blues average crowd in 2005 was almost 29,000. It was 23,600 in 2006, 22,600 in 2007 and 22,000 in 2008.

Blues marketing manager Grant McKenzie is no doubt that if there was a later start, crowd numbers would be better. "There are a lot of factors to take into consideration - such as how well your team is travelling. But if you play a marquee game in February or early March you get a different crowd compared with playing that same game in April or May."

The TV numbers also support the NZRU's contention that interest heightens in the mid-part of the competition. In 2006 the average audience for New Zealand games in April rose to 250,000 and to 200,000 in 2007.

But it has to be questioned whether the NZRU are wise to be so adamant about a later start. Yes, there is one trend showing growth in viewership later in the season.

The far more alarming trend, however, is that TV audiences have shrunk by almost half since 2006. Average crowds have not witnessed such a dramatic decline but most franchises are seeing a drop and, most worryingly, they are losing season ticket sales.

The start date has proven to be academic - each year the average crowd for the first five weeks has declined and then risen to levels lower than that of the previous year.

The reality is that the numbers are always better later in the season when there is more resting on each game; when heroes and villains have been found; when there is momentum and a clear picture forming about potential winners and losers.

Surely the most important thing for the NZRU is to create a competition that arrests this decline - that sees a growth in interest at the start, middle and end?

If it engages the fans it is more than likely it will engage the players and therefore sponsors and broadcasters. There also tends to be a correlation between viewing numbers and ticket sales. If the product is good, people will go to the game with many more watching on TV.

Again kick-off times for games in New Zealand are not as big a deal as made out - fans will organise themselves to be at the game or watch it on TV if they feel it will be worth their while.

The Blues kicked off at 5.30pm - a supposedly unpopular slot - against the Sharks and just about filled Eden Park. If the contest has quality players, integrity, passion and relevance - people will pay to be there.

All this has to be remembered by the New Zealand contingent who are in South Africa, locked in crisis talks with their Sanzar partners.

What is their key objective in all this? Is it to show they won't be bullied or intimidated by South Africa and remain inflexible on the start date? If that's their agenda then they will be left to cobble together a Super 12 with Australia, the Pacific Islands and Japan.

South Africa provided about 65 per cent of the $323 million that was netted in the last broadcast deal - with New Zealand taking roughly one third of that pot. Take the South Africans out of the equation and the potential value of the new deal plummets - no one disagrees, the only unknown is by how much.

In 2004, Sanzar's research led them to believe the inclusion of a Japanese team would not add significant value to the broadcast rights. A Pacific Island team will certainly not push up the price and the NZRU know the alternative Super 12 proposal is going to reduce broadcast revenue.

They also know it will come with a significant reduction in costs without having to travel the Indian Ocean. If revenue falls by 50 per cent and costs by 50 per cent, then it could be all on.

But is this Pacific-Asian set-up really going to win hearts and minds? Australia doesn't have the players to sustain a fifth team. Where will Japan source its talent and will European-based Pacific Islanders really come back to be part of this?

There is a danger that we will be getting rid of the Cheetahs and Lions only to replace them in new guises. This Super 12 idea doesn't sound so super.

The preferred Super 15 option

poses the same question about where the players will be found to fill a fifth Australian team and leaves the existing issue about travel and early-morning kick-offs when in the Republic.

It does, however, come with the massively compelling conference-only phase where New Zealand's five teams will square off. This is what everyone wants and the numbers prove it.

In any given year, outside of the playoffs, the five biggest TV audiences have come from local derbies. Last year the average audience for New Zealand games after 10 weeks was 182,000. Yet the Hurricanes versus Crusaders was watched by 349,000 people. The Chiefs versus Crusaders had nearly 300,000 viewers and the Chiefs versus Hurricanes 233,000.

"The big drawcards are the games against New Zealand teams," Melsop says. "The local derbies are the games that generate most interest." McKenzie repeats the point and the NZRU will have to think very carefully about ditching the Super 15 concept.

The trade-off for the early start is the knowledge that further down the track, the TV viewing numbers and gates are going to leap dramatically when the conference phase comes around.

The attractiveness of this conference plan should not be underestimated, particularly as it will be backed with an extended playoff series.

A home and away format involving just the New Zealand teams will give certainty to all stakeholders that for 10 weeks there is going to be huge interest in rugby that will carry through to the playoffs.

There is a big picture here that says the format is more important than the timing and everything should be done to resurrect the Super 15 concept.