Gavel / Unloved Brumbies need to look at themselves

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APART from the weather and real estate prices, the next topic to occupy the minds of many sports enthusiasts in Canberra is the comparative crowd numbers at games featuring local teams.

Tim Gavel.

Discussion has reached a high point in the past week in the wake of the dismal crowd for the Brumbies’ quarter final against the Hurricanes at Canberra Stadium. Just 9971 turned out for a final featuring the comeback of Christian Lealiifano. Admittedly, it was on a cold Canberra night but the temperature has been lower and the crowd numbers far higher in the past.

There were mitigating factors though, including the poor form of Australian teams against NZ sides this season. The Brumbies had won half the number of games this year compared to the Hurricanes heading into the quarter final.

But there is more to it than simply form and the weather.

Rugby seriously needs to look at its product and whether it offers value for money in a competitive entertainment market. Five times this season the Brumbies recorded crowds under 10,000 and didn’t go past 14,000 at any time. The numbers have been heading south for the past decade. Jake White, when coach of the team, expressed frustration at the crowds during his side’s run to the final in 2013.

The reasons appear to be multi-layered.

To break it down, the style of play had fans expressing frustration in the loss to the Hurricanes, which is a reflection on the season. Following their best first half in two years at Canberra Stadium, the Brumbies reverted to a pattern in the second half that has driven supporters mad all season with inept kicking when ball-in-hand rugby was beckoning.

When they were established, the Brumbies had the feel of a renegade team prepared to back themselves and the crowd numbers rose after a modest start. There were glimpses of the Brumbies of old in the first half against the Hurricanes.

The crowd responded in kind with a standing ovation at half time followed by booing at the kicking tactics in the second half even though stats show the Hurricanes actually kicked more than the Brumbies.

But it is not just the style of play that’s kept crowds away.

There remains a disconnect with the Brumbies and some in grassroots rugby in Canberra. Promises of funding and support were made in the past and were not kept resulting in a certain amount of distrust, which came to the fore during the drama of last year. I have always felt that the key to the Brumbies succeeding on and off the field depends, to a large degree, on overwhelming support from the grassroots.

Michael Thomson and, before him, Phil Thomson have done an outstanding job in righting the ship after it threatened to go on to the rocks, but it’ll take time to restore the Brumbies brand to its former glory. They have worked hard to re-establish relationships between the Brumbies, the clubs and some sponsors who felt as though they had been discarded.

One thing Brumbies’ supporters tell me is they don’t really know the players apart from Lealiifano. This will take time with 12 new players coming into the side this season and big names such as Stephen Moore and Matt Toomua leaving, coupled with David Pocock’s year away. Thankfully, Pocock is back for the Brumbies next season.

Part of the problem is the lack of free-to-air television coverage as well. Pay television offers a good product but the numbers watching remain small when compared to free-to-air. The profile and marketing of the team need to be assessed. I spoke with people who didn’t even know the Brumbies were playing in a final.

Another aspect is the cost of going to sporting events. It’s a sensitive area. Some fans turned away from the Brumbies around 2005 when the ticket prices went up considerably under the guise that they had not been lifted for some time and they needed to be brought into line with ticket prices in other centres.

Aside from buying a season pass, which is a far better deal across all three major codes, according to the ticketing website the lowest-priced, adult, general admission, one-off ticket for the Brumbies is $26.55 plus a handling fee and $12.25 for kids. For the Raiders, general admission is $25 and $15 for kids and for GWS the lowest general admission price for adults is around $24 plus a handling fee with $5 admission for kids, both on the hill. There are, of course, additional costs such as parking and food.

I have been told the Brumbies are considering dropping the price for memberships and walk-up tickets next season to make it more affordable. I believe this is a step in the right direction.

The timing of games this season hasn’t been great with a month-long break in June; night time in winter in Canberra is also a hard sell. The ARU conducted a fan survey asking what was the preferred time for the Wallabies/Barbarians game on October 29 in Sydney. Fifty per cent voted for the 3pm start and only 23 per cent for 7.30pm.

Something that can’t be overlooked is the desire in Canberra to go to an event. The Brumbies need to look no further than the way the Raiders have turned their game day into an experience with the crowd engaged through the Viking Clap. It has to be experienced to understand its impact.

To be fair, it’s taken to some degree a generation for the Raiders to entice fans back to Canberra Stadium. Many turned away from the game in Canberra during Super League and it has taken 21 years for some to return.

I don’t think it will take that long for the Brumbies, but it will take patience and hard work.

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Tim Gavel
Journalist and ABC sports broadcaster

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