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.
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:
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:
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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