olly barkley #5 - rain rain go away

This week Olly debates a summer season for rugby and how it could improve attendance

By Olly Barkley, 18 March 2011

From the armchair coach to the paying spectator, there isn't a category of rugby enthusiast whose experience of the oval game hasn't been diluted by the English weather in one way or another. I'm talking about rain predominantly. Wet and grim. We curse it; we scowl at it, but for those of us who love our rugby, we persist with it for as long as it takes to hear the final whistle, before we leave spluttering and soaked through to our bone marrow.

For Clive Woodward sitting in the armchair (because secretly we all talk, or at least think we talk like him, at some stage of the match) rain will, nine times out of ten, mean a heavy pitch and a slippery ball. This will, in turn, influence a team's tactics to become more conservative. Perhaps reluctant and often unable to move the ball too far from set piece or breakdown and it will undoubtedly mean far more boot to ball as teams look to press opposition in their own third looking for mistakes.

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if we can restructure our season to sit in line with the summer months the commercial opportunities presented to the sport would be beneficial for everyone involved and reach out to those who aren't.

Olly Barkley

On a summer season

If you're lucky enough to have a ticket to a match then the current state of underdeveloped stadia probably means you'll be able to add "sodden through' to the experience of an already lacklustre rugby match, in which aerial ping-pong is all the rage.

Too often this is rugby life from the months of November through to what can be March, making up two thirds of our rugby season. To the purist, it can be rugby in its rawest form, but the continuing debate over rugby as a summer sport runs far deeper than just the ability to throw a few more miss-passes and the odd reverse flick.

Talk to any Commercial Director of any rugby club (or developing sport for that matter) and they'll all have a similar angle of attack when it comes to match day. It's about offering the paying spectator more than just 80 minutes of rugby and maybe the odd autograph. For rugby to grow beyond its traditional and stereotypical boundaries it is vital that clubs lay on a far more inclusive and versatile experience for match days and move away from just the odd mascot banging out poorly performed caterpillars.

Nowadays, it's not uncommon to arrive at a match with the chance of the odd coaching set-up for kids to learn from injured or academy players, or maybe an interactive experience from one of the clubs' major sponsors. Half time is also another brief opportunity to throw in a touchline interview or have the mini section run riot across the pitch in small-sided games. It's about appealing to the wider audience, not only to generate more income for the club, but also, more interest for the sport as a whole.

The one single thing that influences whether or not a club can successfully budget and plan for these types of match day attractions is the weather. Bath and the Recreation Ground is a classic representation of the boundaries the weather places on the growth of commercialism in rugby. Through the tail-end of spring and summer you'll see many of the activities I've spoken of draw in a far wider demographic than rugby's norm, as well as the die-hard Bath fans who remain in fine fettle come rain or shine. As winter moves in and profit margins continue to be the focus for the commercial department, these activities being washed out can seriously rain on the club's match-day profits.

Take the South Africans. Blessed with almost year-round sunshine, match day is a chance for the entire family to crack open a few Castle in the car park around the ground while a boerewurst spits away on the BBQ. The weather allows rugby in South Africa to be far more than just rugby. The whole experience modestly transcends the game itself and in the process draws in an audience beyond the game's archetypal boundaries.

olly barkley on blokely.com, rain rain go away

To improve match attendance clubs should be laying on an inclusive experience of mini-rugby and coaching, not just the odd mascot

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It's about appealing to the wider audience to not only generate more income for the club, but also, more interest for the sport as a whole.

Olly Barkley

On a wider audience

Of course, death and taxes are the only things guaranteed in this life and especially in England, the weather is never guaranteed, but the spreading of rugby over the summer months increases the sport's ability to boost everything from profits to appeal, two key components in rugby's expansion.

So outside the stadium everything's rosy, but what about the impact on the game itself? I touched on the flip side earlier, but it goes without saying - a dry ball and a firm pitch produce positive rugby. Fact. It's far easier to offload. You can move the ball to the wide-open spaces more or less at will and ball security is less of an issue, which paves the way for less stoppages and increased continuity. Great stuff. Suddenly we're presented with a faster, more free flowing game that is not only more enjoyable to play in and to watch, but more likely in its consistent dynamism to attract fresh faces and sponsors. The knock-on effects of a shift in season are extensive. Of this there's no doubt.

Maybe during my time as a writer with Blokely I have placed too much emphasis on the importance of commercialism and its growth in Rugby Union. Maybe not. But for me, it's the one area where we can make enormous strides. Rugby will always have its traditional values and social appeal, but if we can restructure our season to sit in line with the summer months the commercial opportunities presented to the sport would be beneficial for everyone involved and reach out to those who aren't.

It's easy for me to sit here and change the face of rugby from my laptop. I don't think for one second that implementing this sort of global change wouldn't call for drastic reshuffling of both domestic and international fixtures and a dramatic decline in turnover for many of the unions over a two to three year period, but Rugby is going to be around for a long time. Surely the bigger picture has a stronger case here?

My major hesitation: The IRB would need to be steering the ship and those boys are still deciding on what the rules of the game should be. With that in mind, M&S have some reasonably priced brollies on sale at the moment. Could come in handy.


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