Monday, 28 May 2012

Magic Weekend could be so much more

A new record attendance may have been set in the Stobart Super League's sixth Magic Weekend but despite the high level of entertainment and drama, my overriding memory of the showpiece will be the thousands of empty seats inside Manchester City's Etihad Stadium. 
Every me and every blue: The Magic Weekend attendances are being over-estimated
There is no doubt about it, rugby league is growing in popularity year on year and the weekend's overall attendance of 63,716 was testament to that fact. The ever-increasing quality of the players and the free-flowing feel of the game is attracting larger crowds, but I believe it's time for the powers that be to realistically gauge the popularity of the sport for its own benefit.

Total attendances at the six Magic Weekends:
2007 South Wales: 58,831
2008 South Wales: 63,144
2009 Edinburgh: 59,749
2010 Edinburgh: 52,043
2011 Cardiff: 60,214
2012 Manchester: 63,716
Average Magic Weekend attendance: 59,616 

For several reasons, I have to say that the event had the feel of a pre-season football tournament. A sea of blue greeted the players as they filed out of the tunnel, the sun was blazing down on the pitch and the atmosphere was more befitting of Sunday's Soccer Aid on the other side of Manchester than one of the biggest events in the rugby league calender.

Super League Chief Executive, Nigel Wood, provided this summary of the weekend. 

“I think Magic Weekend 2012 encapsulated all that is great about Rugby League: superb athletes delivering skillful and exciting entertainment to enthusiastic crowds in a terrific stadium,” said Wood.

“We witnessed some wonderful action out on the pitch and the players deserve rich praise for the high standard of play in the glorious sunshine.

“I would also like to thank the fans who turned out in their tens of thousands to create a carnival atmosphere both inside and outside the Etihad Stadium."

I certainly can't disagree with anything Wood has to say but should there really be a 'carnival atmosphere' surrounding the likes of a heavyweight clash between Wigan Warriors and St Helens or a highly-charged derby between Hull Kingston Rovers and Hull FC?

Did football's Manchester derby four weeks earlier stimulate the same sort of atmosphere amongst the fans of City and United? No. Tension, excitement, love, hatred, joy and despair, spread evenly across a jam-packed crowd, characterised the Premier League's equivalent showpiece event. Rugby league doesn't have the capability to render those same emotions - I'm sure avid fans will have something to say about that - but the perception of the sport can be improved if events of this stature are played in stadiums whose capacity matches the number of people they attract.

The average Magic Weekend attendance stands at 59,616. Divide that by two and you have the average daily attendance, 29,808. Next season, instead of playing in front of a 48,000 capacity stadium which is less than two-thirds full, why not play in a 30,000 - 35,000 capacity stadium and create an atmosphere to be reckoned with? Sheffield Magic at Sheffield Eagles' Bramall Lane (32,609 capacity stadium) could be an option.  

Many will argue that resorting to a smaller ground would show a lack of ambition but the sport simply has to develop in accordance with the demand for it. If the demand does happen to exceed the allocation on any given occasion and the venue is packed to the rafters, there will be non-rugby league fans sat at home in front of their televisions wanting to be a part of it. First impressions are everything and I genuinely believe that these need to be worked on if rugby league is to continue to grow as quickly as it has done in recent years.

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