Brumbies chief executive Phil Thomson believes the vast amount of time being wasted before scrums are packed is “one of the biggest blights on our game” and requires the attention of rugby authorities.
Thomson and the Brumbies organization are becoming acutely aware of the headwinds in selling rugby to the public, with a record low 6311 attending their bonus-point win over the Bulls last Friday.
The win was the Brumbies’ sixth at home this year, and sitting on top of the Australian conference, has set the ACT men up nicely for a home final or two.
But much to the financial detriment of the Brumbies, the Canberra crowds have been mostly four-figured all year and if that trend doesn’t change, even hosting a final could reportedly result in a $100,000 loss for the given they have to pay a fee to the visiting team from the gate.
Dan McKellar has repeatedly pleaded with Brumbies fans to turn out to support the team and the coach last week called for Super Rugby to shown on free-to-air TV to generate more public interest.
The Brumbies haven’t had poster-boy David Pocock for most of the year with a persistent and rarely seen calf injury, and after three months out, it appears highly unlikely he will be back to help either the Brumbies’ team or marketing department this season.
Australian Super Rugby clubs tend to be hand-to-mouth as far as all match-day revenue goes and Thomson said there is no mistaking the flow-on pain of low crowd figures.
“The level of (spectator) interest is always concerning because it’s a number of areas of your business: your ticket sales, your membership sales, your merchandise, right through to your corporate hospitality,” Thomson said.
“It’s concerning for your business model as we have it set up at the moment.”
Though often vaguely formed, perception issues in the market around rugby’s current health are a factor, and as with many sports, so too the attraction of ever-improving sport watching options on the comfy couch at home.
But facing the challenge of one direct competitor in Canberra – the still-popular Raiders – the contrasting problem areas of rugby on the field also present, and Thompson believes the stop-start nature of rugby at the moment is a major roadblock to entertaining fans.
“Across the whole of rugby, we need to look at how rugby presents itself as an entertainment product,” Thomson said.
“People don’t pay money to stand around and watch people packing and re-packing scrums.
“I have to say it is one of the biggest blights on our game at the moment: the waste of time and the lack of ball in motion.”
Thomson is well respected and certainly well qualified to offer a view on quality after decades in the game.
He was the Brumbies’ inaugural manager and ran the show in Canberra during their golden era of success, and Thomson subsequently performed the same role as a long-term manager of the Wallabies. He was Rugby Australia's integrity manager for six years as well.
Thomson sat in the stands at GIO Stadium as fans voiced their displeasure aloud at scrum-associated tardiness, and the same issue arose at Bankwest Stadium on Saturday night.
In the first half alone of the Waratahs-Jaguares game, a whopping seven minutes and thirty seconds was spent standing around preparing to pack nine scrums.
In the entitre 80-minute match, over 13 minutes wasted on forwards assembling to scrum, before actually briefly packing down
Given the amount of other stoppages in the game, the dawdling 56-second-per-scrum pace set by referee Paul Williams was a lead-weight on the atmosphere and compared to the ever-moving nature of league and AFL, is a source of frustration for fans.
Even in rugby-mad New Zealand, the glacial pace of scrum-setting and re-sets is attracting discontent.
Safety concerns slowed things up when packing scrums but in many of the Waratahs-Jaguares scrums, forwards took 30 seconds to even start binding.
“People want entertainment. They want to see a product which is fast and entertaining,” Thomson said.
“We have guys standing around for whatever time, with no play whatsoever.”
Short-term, Thomson is hopeful the Brumbies’ ongoing success – and attractive style of play - will re-generate their crowd size for a final round clash against the Reds, and a final if things work out to plan.
The Reds game will be a “Pasifika” theme for the Brumbies, where the team will wear a one-off jersey and the game will be surrounded with cultural activities.
“We’re hopeful that will be a good engagement with the community,” Thomson said.
“The team will wear a special jersey for the match and we’ll just continue to just try and connect with all areas of the community, from kids right through to people who play rugby or support rugby.”
Longer-term, Thomson said he will keep pushing for more afternoon games in the Brumbies fixture list.
“We would like to have two, three, four afternoon games to attract families, especially at this time of year when it is cold,” Thompson said.
“But we also realise TV broadcasters have a fair say in that given their investment in the game.”
There is a school of thought that broadcasters would help themselves in an overall sense by agreeing to more afternoon games, and the potential re-engagement of lost audiences.
Thomson can appreciate the theory.
“That’s a way of re-engaging with the public I guess, for a number of parties,” he said.
“If they come out to a game and have a good experience, and you sitting there and watching a 3pm game, if the next game is at night you’ll be more likely to watch it if they have an interest and are following the game.”
Asked if he seconded McKellar’s call for Super Rugby on free-to-air TV, Thomson said: “I have been seconding that for 23 years, but that’s a bigger question there.”
“Obviously the more exposure the game can get in more areas of the community and population is better for the game. But I understand there are bigger issues at play there when you are negotiating to get maximum value in a broadcast deal.”