If you build it, they will come. This might well be the case inside Papua New Guinea’s recently refurbished National Football Stadium, which has been bursting at the seams for the two group games played there so far, but it couldn’t be further from the truth here in Australia.
Low crowds and empty grandstands are a common theme in NRL land, where attendances have been in free fall for the past 5 years, but it seems to have crept into Rugby League’s showpiece event.
Here in Australia, we saw it coming from a mile away. If crowds aren’t turning up to see two highly supported local rivals go toe-to-toe at ANZ Stadium or Allianz on a balmy Sunday afternoon in prime time, why would they show up to watch Lebanon play England, or Italy play the U.S.A?
Ticket sales are of course indicative of the tournament’s advertising methods, which have been flimsy to say the least, while ticket prices aren’t exactly tempting punters to part with their hard earned.
But to blame poor attendance rates on the tournament’s questionable promotion alone is to miss the bigger picture.
Only four games have been played at one of Australia’s big rectangular ‘stadiums’ so far, while Western Sydney has been neglected altogether.
Two of those fixtures included Australia, and even then the stadiums still appeared to be only half full.
If the host nation can’t draw a crowd, how can you expect anyone to be interested in attending a game in the sweltering Townsville heat on a Saturday evening at 9:00pm?
Australia’s premier Rugby League venue, Suncorp Stadium, will be used for just two games in this edition of the World Cup. It will host a semi-final on the 24th of November and the big dance a week later.
This seems like a missed opportunity on multiple fronts; foremost that Queensland, one of Australia’s League heartlands, is effectively starved of live action until the tournament has just three games left to run.
During a different month, in a different city, this might not pose an issue. But while the semi-final is being played out between two of the competition heavyweights, the second day of the first Ashes test will have concluded just a few kilometers down the road at the Gabba.
The logic behind taking games to rural hubs like Cairns and Rugby League mad cities like Townsville makes sense, but when they feature noncompetitive games between minnow nations where the scorelines blow out after a few sets of six, you can hardly expect them to pique the interest of locals.
Why is it that the major venues – AAMI Park, Suncorp, GIO and the SFS – receive all the games involving Australia at some point across the tournament? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pack Barlow Park to the rafters on a Friday evening while the minnow nations battle it out on Saturday at the major venues to whet the appetite of the fans in places like Queensland and Perth, where the tournament has no presence until the final few weeks?
By starving fans living in and around the big stadiums in Melbourne, Brisbane and Western Sydney, the RLWC organisers are cutting off their noses despite their face.
Crowds are going to be naturally low for games involving minnow nations, and it is hard to find an excuse for the poor crowd that saw England play Lebanon at the SFS on Saturday night other than to say that this has long been the case in the NRL as well. But by moving some games that matter to the heartlands, and the remainder to the major stadiums, fans in all regions are being exposed to the action.
The state of Rugby League outside the nations with a national competition, or a presence in those individual leagues, has seen the gulf in standard increase dramatically, as evidenced by Fiji’s 66 point demolition of Wales.
Finding a way to pack out any stadiums under these circumstances is going to take some progressive thinking, so why not move them to the big cities where developing some interest in the tournament is better than letting it fly under the radar?
England did a fine job of making games between the minnows appealing four years ago; Australia must do the same.