Dragons, Newport, Gwent Steelers? – the red herring in Welsh rugby

Few topics take up more column inches and twitter characters than the perennial debate about the names and branding of the 4 Welsh regions.

Our view is quite simple; the regions’ support is not driven by the names they are given but by their success on the rugby pitch.

It is a myth that the name of the team is a prime determinant of their support, measured through attendance figures – indeed it’s the biggest myth in Welsh rugby, and one that detracts from the real issues that hinder the domestic Welsh game.

 

The Newport….or is it Gwent question?

This week has seen the announcement that the Newport Gwent Dragons are seeking new investors to take over from the incumbents. In the immediate aftermath of the announcement the talk wasn’t about who the likely investors would be and how much money they would need to invest, it was centred around what would the team be called.

Would it stay the Newport Gwent Dragons, or be called just the Dragons? How about the Steelers, or the Gwent Steelmen? The reality is it doesn’t matter. Supporters will come through the turnstiles for one reason – when the team is strong, playing well and ultimately being successful.

Unless the people of Newport have masochistic tendencies there is little enjoyment in paying good money to watch your team being humbled at home week after week. It really is that simple.

The same logic holds true for the other 3 Welsh regions; if your measure of the strength of your supporter base is the number of people coming through the gate, the best way to improve it is to invest in a strong team. We will come back to the investment angle later.

 

…but in the pre-regional days there were huge crowds?

Not really. This is a myth that has grown over time with the objective to deride the current attendance levels, and therefore give credence to the argument that the regional concept isn’t working.

If we look at the attendances in the 2 seasons before regionalisation (2001/02 and 2002/03) we can get an idea of the size of the pre-regional crowds.

This table shows the average home gate for the Celtic League and Heineken Cup for those two seasons.

celtic league pre regionalisation.jpg

We can see that attendances for the Heineken Cup were higher than the Celtic League but the average gates are still relatively low. In the 2001/02 season only 3k turned up at St Helens to watch the Heineken Cup fixture against Bath, while in the following season 4.7k made the trip to the Arms Park for the visit of Northampton Saints.

There were some decent crowds in these two seasons, most notably at Llanelli where 10.8k were in attendance against Perpignan. It’s not a surprise given this was a quarter final and this was a good season for the club.

There was also a Welsh-Scottish league (2001/02) and a Welsh league (2002/03) during this period but where the attendance data is available it is broadly in line with the figures shown in the table above.

 

How do the attendances look on a combined regional basis?

Some people may argue that the better comparison is between the combined attendances for the clubs in a given region and the region today. If we map the figures for the 9 clubs against the current structure we get the following:

region II.jpg

 

 

Comparison with post-regional attendances

The historical attendances don’t look huge but to give some context we need to map them against the attendances from 2003/04 to the end of last season.

Let’s look at the attendance figures for the Heineken Cup:

HEc v attendance.jpg

 

Taking the blue line, which represents Cardiff RFC and Pontypridd RFC in the first two seasons and Cardiff Blues from then on, we see a big uplift in attendances post- regionalisation through 2006 to 2009.

So how did Cardiff Blues end up with such big gates – did they drop the “Cardiff” bit and add “Glamorgan Valleys” to the name? No…they just developed a strong team that was successful and competed well in the Heineken Cup.

In the 2008/09 season they reached the semi-final of the Heineken Cup before losing in sickening style to Leicester in a penalty kick-off. These attendance figures don’t include that semi final but do include the quarter final gate when 37,000 saw them overcome Toulouse.

What the team was called was irrelevant when the likes of Halfpenny, Shanklin, Blair and Jamie Roberts are playing and the team is winning.

The black line representing the Ospreys and their legacy clubs shows the same pattern; attendances increased substantially from the pre-regional club base to peak between 2006 and 2010. The reason? The “Galacticos” were in town as the likes of Shane Williams, Hook, Byrne, Phillips and other Wales stars were augmented by a sprinkling of top southern hemisphere players.

The Scarlets increase hasn’t been as impressive but they are still showing average attendances substantially above the pre-regional days.

The only region that hasn’t shown an increase is the Dragons – although their recent figures aren’t helped by not playing in the top level European competition.

This was towards the end of the period which had seen Newport benefit from investments which brought the likes of South Africans Gary Teichmann and Adrian Garvey, Shane Howarth and Ian Gough. In other words they had big name players and were a competitive team. Today’s Dragon’s team has only one top class player and he will leave at the end of the season. The spectators can’t be blamed for staying away when the team is performing so poorly.

 

How do the Welsh regions improve their attendance figures?

As the data above has shown, the key to improving attendances is to focus time and effort on improving the on-field performances and not expend energy on playing around with the teams’ names. Yes, one or two old supporters may still hark back to the days when the “Dragons” were just Newport but time has moved on and the key to future success is to expand the supporter base not kow-tow to a small minority.

There are two short term areas that need to be addressed by the Welsh regions. The first is to achieve a balance between the regions and the national team in terms of player access and the development of Welsh qualified players. The balance has tilted too far towards the national team to the detriment of the regions.

The second is to access sources of investment and funding that will allow them to be competitive with the best teams in Europe. Rugby is now a pan-European marketplace and the likes of the Dragons and Cardiff are competing with the best to keep their star players.

In the long term the success of the Welsh regions will depend on gaining access to the big market of England, through an Anglo-Welsh or British and Irish league. This is vital to sharing in the increasing wealth in the game.

These are the key aspects of the current regional Welsh game that should be the focus of administrators, players and supporters alike. They hold the key to the success of the professional game in Wales, not whether a team is called Newport, Gwent or the Caerleon Gladiators…..

 

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4 thoughts on “Dragons, Newport, Gwent Steelers? – the red herring in Welsh rugby

  1. I normally enjoy the posts on this website, but this is a really disappointing article with little meaningful insight. Success massively helps, but that is only part of the story. I appreciate that this is a difficult subject, and I give you credit for at least compiling the attendances for all the clubs 2001-03 (itself at the end of a period of lengthy decline), so we can see how poor Blues crowds are combined to Cardiff/Pontypridd (and Caerphilly), but this subject is best avoided altogether if there is insufficient time for thorough analysis. Regional rugby was also to engage with those with no interest in either Cardiff or Pontypridd. For example, and as regards the Blues, the two misleading spikes in their Heineken Cup campaigns were essentially Millennium Stadium events – Leicester in 2006-07 and Gloucester/Toulouse in 2008-09. “Events” that haven’t even been attempted for many years, other than the WRU led Judgement Day. The “affinity cap” in East Glamorgan and Gwent is a complex issue, which blocks growth beyond potential scope for events for the non-aligned. The disaffection towards the Blues in Pontypridd is not limited to the remnants of the old fan base that still follows the town’s major rugby club at semi-pro level. There is a wider disillusionment. That said, please keep the blog articles coming.

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  2. It’s an article that a lot of people will disagree with but thanks for setting out the reasons why you disagree.

    I am not sure I wholly agree with your comment that “Regional rugby was also to engage with those with no interest in either Cardiff or Pontypridd”. It’s main objective was to concentrate the limited resources so you get a higher standard of rugby, but that’s a side issue to the thrust of this article.

    You have highlighted the Cardiff spikes as “misleading”, but why? Surely the whole point in progressing to the latter stages of tournaments like the HEC are that you pull big crowds? Why ignore big crowds because they are Millennium Stadium events?

    In the 2006/07 campaign they also drew a crowd of over 12k for another pool game; which gives a healthy total for the 3 home pool games. The 2008/09 season was even better with the 3 pool games having 11k, 11k and 27k attendances and that’s before we get to the quarters and semis at the MS.

    The point is that these events were well attended, even though there are people who say the name of the team puts people off. The facts are that it may put off a small number of supporters but there is appetite out there. It’s not exactly revolutionary but success brings in the supporters.

    There may be antagonism between some Ponty supporters and Cardiff but the figures show that Cardiff Blues can pull big crowds without having a stream of supporters heading down to the CAP. The challenge is to put together a competitive team again and the attendances will increase.

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  3. Some good points in this article – particularly on recognising the need for an Anglo-Welsh or British League. Rugby operates in a global market, and sadly too many commentators on Welsh rugby recognise this fact. Primarily, Wales’ four pro-clubs are companies that need to generate revenue. Branding is a tool to create revenue and survive. They have suffered for many years at the hands of a Union who actively worked for their demise. Let’s hope things are changing.

    However, your article contains a number of over-simplifications which I would argue demonstrate a lack of background knowledge and a lack of understanding of the market in Wales.

    Your biggest mistake is your “belief” that supporters “will come through the turnstiles for ONLY ONE reason” [winning]. I’m afraid your article does not demonstrate this to be the case. Three points in particular stand out.

    1. Comparing crowds before 2003 and after 2003 reveals some interesting facts – most notably the large fall in popularity of the professional team playing out of Newport post 2003 – an almost 30% drop. So why did this happen? Did the team suddenly become weaker? 2003 was a watershed for Newport and a disaster in marketing. Fans stayed away and a mad scramble to rename the club was needed to attract them back. You’ve completely overlooked this data quoted from your own research.

    2. Assuming that all supporters of Caerphilly would suddenly flock to watch the NG Dragons post 2003 again shows more than a little naivety. Why would that happen? There is no geographical compulsion at play. Supporters could continue to watch their local team or merely make the shorter trip to Cardiff. As for suggesting that all Pontypridd fans would travel en mass to Cardiff, well, that is ridiculous.

    3. You’ve quoted the rather high figures that the Cardiff Blues reported when they played their home games at the soccer ground in Cardiff. Despite these “high” attendance figures, the decision to play at Cardiff City’s ground has been recognised as a financial disaster. It cost the company millions to extricate themselves from a rental agreement. Eventually, they were forced to return to CAP, to an increase in gates. Now why would that be? Did the team suddenly become unsuccessful? Or were there other factors at play? Those who follow the team, buy tickets and chant “Cardiff” from the terraces will tell you it was a return to “home” – a reaffirmation of the heritage of the club – that attracted the increased gates.

    Perhaps in other sports there is a pool of customers who merely float from one successful team to another with no particularly long term allegiance. I’ve yet to experience this myself, but maybe this is something you’ve come across. Speaking from a more commercial perspective, branding counts. Companies spend millions on it – and defend their brands tooth and nail. Why should sporting teams be any different? Where is the evidence?

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    • Thanks for your comments. Perhaps saying on field success is “the only reason” is a bit of journalistic licence but it is certainly the primary factor. Taking your 3 points:

      (1) There is a fundamental difference between NGD and the other 3 teams which goes a long way to explaining their figures; they have not managed to put together a competitive team for over 10 years. There was always going to be an unsettled period post-regionalisation but NGD’s problem hasn’t been their name, it’s the fact they have not had a winning team. The other teams have been a force at various times in the league or Europe.

      (2) By combining the attendances of the clubs within a region the intention wasn’t to suggest they would start watching their old region, it was to respond to the point made by some “anti-regionalists” we say the regions’ attendances today are less than the total under the old club system.

      As you rightly say there is no real historical relationship between Caerphilly and Newport. If people from Caerphilly want to watch top class rugby they will historically go to Cardiff not Newport.

      (3) I deliberately didn’t mention the topic of income from the gates because as you point out it is a complicated topic and one with limited transparency externally. It doesn’t follow that a large gate will lead to higher income.

      The article is about levels of support – using attendances as a proxy, rather than the income from the game.

      When Cardiff returned the CAP there was a relatively small increase in crowds (nothing particularly material) but they were still lower than the first season or so in the CCC. I’d caveat this by saying the team wasn’t performing as well as they had during the CCC period.

      Finally, I think you place a bit too much importance on branding. The main difference between rugby (or sport) and “business” is that when we buy a can of cola or a packet of crisps we will often change what we buy. Sport isn’t like that. We tend to stick to one team through our lives and in rugby this is usually our local team.

      Munster has one of the strongest brands in rugby but their recent problems on the field has mirrored a material decline in attendances. I would argue their brand today is as strong as it was 4/5 years ago?

      A rugby team needs marketing of course, but it’s a lot easier to sell a ticket to a winning team than a losing one.

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