The NFL International Series returned to the UK for the 10th year running today, and with Wembley packed to the rafters, it begs the question how a minority sport in this country can fill the national stadium, while Rugby League cannot for the Challenge Cup Final? Let’s take a look at the issues, and what the RFL need to do to revitalise public interest in the sport.
The above chart compares the attendance figures of the Challenge Cup Final and the NFL International Series since the new Wembley opened back in 2007. Apart from one year, the American Football has received a gate of over 80,000 every time, something the Challenge Cup Final struggles to achieve on a regular basis.
OFFICIAL ATTENDANCE: 83,764
— #OnlyInTheNFL (@NFLUK) October 2, 2016
We all know Club Wembley figures (an extra 10,000) are included in the final total for the Cup Final, which distorts the figure. The corporate seats are usually less than 25% full. 2016’s game between Hull FC and Warrington brought the lowest ever crowd for the final at new Wembley, but why?
Well, Hull FC are certainly not to blame considering they sold roughly 26,000 tickets to see their team’s triumph. However, Warrington only sold 12,000 tickets with many fans who didn’t go citing the reason “They’ve been 3 already times since 2009 and it doesn’t feel that special”. But, over the last 4 or 5 years, the main problem has been the reluctance on neutrals to attend the game. In past years, shirts of every other team in the country would be seen at the final, from Wigan to Workington, you’d see them all. This year in particular was a completely different story. Only the occasion Leeds shirt was seen amongst the Hull and Wire fans.
The NFL is now played in the UK more often that the Challenge Cup Final, so the excuse of Rugby League’s most iconic event becoming boring doesn’t exactly wash when American Football sells out the venue without fail, every single time. The biggest problem right now is marketing
When the NFL International Series rolls into town, Regent Street becomes awash with red,white and blue and Central London is turned into a huge American Football fan festival. Thousands flock to see a whole host of events: appearances by coaches and players, interviews with NFL legends, exhibits featuring all the teams playing at Wembley, interactive games where visitors had a go at kicking and throwing, performances by cheerleaders, NFL merchandise, Food and drink and more. The RFL have made poor attempts at something similar in the past in Trafalgar Square, but have come nowhere close to the success of Regent Street. If something like this could be achieved, would this boost attendance figures not just amongst neutrals, but with Londoners too?
Only 10% of a typical NFL Wembley crowd travels across from the USA, around 10% come from mainland Europe, meaning 80% of the crowd are UK based. How is it that a minority sport can attract so much more attention, when Rugby League, a permanent fixture of the UK sporting scene, cannot? Statistics show that most fans aren’t even London based or Americans living in the UK!
And poor crowds can’t be to do with ticket prices. An average seat for the NFL will set you back over £100, whereas for the Cup Final, you can pick up a ticket for £20 if you book early.
So, what else can the RFL do? Well with the rise in success of the Magic Weekend, many fans prefer that for their annual Rugby League weekend away, as they have the guaranteed opportunity of seeing their side play. Some fans don’t like the Magic Weekend concept their they are heavily outvoted by the majority so it is here to stay. On Regent Street, we know the RFL have the capabilities of doing something similar, we see it in the fan zones outside the grounds.
Some fans also think the Cup Final is played at the wrong time of year. In August, fans have already forked out a shedload of money following their team across the season. Bringing it back to May might help attendances grow, spreading out the main events of the season more evenly. There are only 2 and a bit months between the Cup Final and the Grand Final remember.
In all honestly, it’s more than just the Challenge Cup Final. The 18th Man revealed last week that attendance figures are down on 2015, with the sport showing no signs of expanding attendance wise. With Hull KR relegated, Super League could yet again see a drop in the number of fans attending games next season. Hopefully Leigh can fill that void but it’s unlikely they’ll get gates of 7000+ every week.
The sport needs a huge overhaul; the refereeing standard is poor, which puts people off turning up to games. Thursday nights are having a shocking effect of attendances. The RFL need to face up to Sky and stop them changing fixtures as and when they please. Marketing is poor; fair enough if they want to concentrate on the heartland areas, but adverts and promotions are a rare. That’s just a smattering of problems we have, so being outdone by the Yanks in our own country is bloody embarrassing!