Consultation on how Super Rugby should look from 2016 has been extensive, yet one major stakeholder might feel they have been excluded.

Players, coaches, sponsors and broadcasters have all had their say, but not the paying public: their views have either been dismissed or misinterpreted.

What fans have made clear since Super Rugby expanded to 14 teams in 2006 is that they haven't seen a competition that has persuaded them to leave the house so much. Average crowds in New Zealand have dropped by about 30 per cent in the last eight years.

The arrival of new teams such as the Rebels, Force, Cheetahs and Kings has not brought with it a sense of the exotic. The gate numbers show they have, in New Zealand and to a lesser extent South Africa and Australia, killed some of the allure of a competition that once had the public gripped.


In 2006, South Africa posted an average Super Rugby crowd of 34,000, Australia 24,000 and New Zealand 22,000. By 2012, those numbers had dropped across the board: South Africa was down to 28,000, Australia 20,000 and New Zealand 16,000.

On this evidence, increasing the number of teams to 18 from 2016 carries significant risk. The fans have signalled that a longer, convoluted competition is slowly turning them off buying tickets.

The bit they do currently like is the home-and-away local derbies - mate being set against mate in what are pseudo-All Black trials. These intra-conference games, however, are not going to feature so much in the brave new world. The double-round element will go as the players have said it's too much, too intense and too demanding. Losing half the local derby content will put gate revenue in further jeopardy - a worry indeed for our franchises. Despite the fact all franchises are trying to diversify income streams and reduce reliance on gate income, it's still the case that if bums aren't on seats, it's hard to balance the books.

"In 11 years at the Chiefs, we had nine years where we were profitable and two where we weren't," says former Chiefs chief executive Gary Dawson. "Team performance is the biggest driver of profitability. Local derbies do attract bigger crowds and we found that fans probably didn't see games against some of the South African and Australian teams so attractive. They would pick and choose which games they would attend.

"Player welfare concerns are high on the agenda [in current Super Rugby broadcast negotiations] and they are legitimate. But no one has asked the fans what they would like to see and if they get a product that they don't like, they will walk and they will be hard to win back."

New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew has recently said that the analysis of crowd patterns has shown the total number of people attending Super Rugby games since the conference format began in 2011 hasn't changed. But gates spike for local derbies and then trough for some of the less-fancied overseas sides.

Knowing this trend, the proposed new competition format of less local derbies and more games against offshore sides is going against the market.

New Zealand, with its comparatively small stadia, is always going to have the lowest average gate figures. But what's not so easy to explain is why the drop has been the sharpest here.


To a certain extent, that question hasn't been fully explored and declining ticket sales have been glossed over as TV viewing audiences have been on the rise. The conference format has been able to at least migrate fans from the stands to the couch and the total number of people watching Super Rugby in New Zealand in any capacity, on any given weekend, is higher now than it was eight years ago.

Figures released in 2012 showed that New Zealand's cumulative TV audience for Super Rugby was close to 10 million, well in excess of Australia's which was less than six million. That 10 million figure represented a 32 per cent increase on 2011.

There are, however, unusual circumstances to explain the leap in figures. The World Cup was in New Zealand in 2011 and that unquestionably impacted Super Rugby attendances and viewing figures. Fans were protective of their discretionary spend - opting to buy World Cup tickets instead - and a little guarded about their leisure time. The Christchurch earthquake also impacted average crowd numbers (they were 12,000 that year) due to the Crusaders being forced into smaller venues.

Deeper analysis of the TV audience would no doubt also reveal that it was again the local derbies that most boosted the numbers - a point Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters alluded to when he announced the figures: "The conference system and increased local derbies are again showing the intense competition within each territory, with grounds, as well as our broadcasting partners revealing some stunning figures."

Sanzar's new format is going to gamble that putting more teams in bigger markets and new teams in new markets will see the overall audience rise significantly. New Zealand, with its relatively tiny population, may be close to saturation point as it is.

Super Rugby's growth model is unusual in that it appears - not deliberately - that its TV audience has been built at the expense of its stadium audience. That should be a concern.


The best competitions, such as the NFL and English Premier League - have seen holistic growth. The former has an average attendance of 69,000 and most, nearly all, of its members are close to sold out each game. The Premiership has pushed its average gate up to 34,000 and yet both competitions continue to see huge growth in broadcast and sponsor revenue.

The danger with building a TV audience only is that they are dipping their toe in. Their level of engagement with the sport is questionable - one flick of a button and they don't have any relationship with the game.

This is not the total immersion sponsors are after. They need certainty about the power of their exposure and for that they need fans committed to the product; who buy more than just a TV subscription.

"It was imperative to get [private equity funding]," says Dawson. "The franchises had been set up as trusts, returning any surplus to the provinces. We couldn't hold any cash reserves or equity, so when private investment came along, it meant we could fund some longer term projects and build facilities for the players and other services."

Gate revenue is the principal source of income for the private investment consortia who have backed the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Crusaders.

Maybe the market will love the new Super Rugby format. Right now, though, there isn't a compelling reason to believe that.