Saturday, June 22

Stupor Rugby?

Super Rugby is faced with a crisis – what is the pay-off between capitalism and meaning? Too often we see the equivalent of that sorry spectacle of cricket matches played primarily for a television audience in front of half-empty or emptier stadiums. Most games of Super Rugby are at that point. Even local derbies, which once brought out the fans, usually fail to fill a stadium.

Has Super Rugby expanded itself to the point of dilution?

What makes sports meaningful is the contest involved: what it means to the supporters and players, and the quality of the players on view.

Super Rugby may have some quality players, but most of the games are increasingly meaningless to most supporters. The joy of a local derby is that it is meaningful on a tribal, contextual and visceral level. In short, it is a type of war of regional identity increasingly played by mercenaries. But the fans too are increasingly mercenary.

Consider the way Taranaki relocated its Super Rugby identity into the Chiefs, not only because the Chiefs are successful in a way the Hurricanes can never hope to achieve, but also because of the financial windfalls they believe, as a region, are associated with such a shift in identity. To be able to cheer against your old team in the name of financial windfalls, as Taranaki supporters now do, exposes the financial basis of Super Rugby in a very stark way. In a similar way we see players stating loyalty to their provincial union in one competition but deciding to play against their super rugby franchise by signing for a team outside that which their province feeds into.

Some might say this is professionalism, but is it is a very strange type of professionalism that Super Rugby has created in New Zealand. The problem with Super Rugby here is that it is not city-based, rather attempting to carry over a notion of representing a region that supplants traditional regional and city identities. The franchises attempt to claim they represent a collection of regions and occasionally take games to their provincial outposts. Yet most of the games are played in a central location that is meant to somehow represent not only the collective regions but also the players and fans. But the players can and do come from all over the country for the Super Rugby season and then many return to other regions, often outside of their super rugby region, to live the rest of the year and play in the short season provincial championships.

For all the apparent centrality of rugby to New Zealand, most of the time it occurs as a peripheral activity and drama for most – especially Super Rugby. The problem is Super Rugby, its format and length of season, its lack of drama and increasingly, its lack of meaning. Fans of the game are increasingly alienated by the way the game is being organised and marketed. For we all know, deep down, that Super Rugby is a failed competition that struggles to hold our interest across a year.

We have a professional rugby season – that is, a season where NZ rugby wants us to pay money to watch rugby – that stretches from late February into October or November. This is not so much a problem if we consider the audience primarily as a broadcasting one – that is, the supporters now pay money to Sky TV to watch rugby and Sky TV in this way funds much of NZ rugby.

In such a scenario test matches are exactly what is needed as they provide a product that everyone wants to see, in a format whereby the decision to pay to watch has already been made and all I have to do is sit on the couch and turn on the TV – and I don’t even have to watch it live. I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night. I can watch a replay on Sky the next morning or evening or I can record it on mysky.

Compare this to going and watching a Super Rugby game live.

Usually, you need leave at least about an hour before the game begins. You drive and then park, then walk for about 15 minutes or more depending on the crowd, line up and shuffle through the gates.

You might line up for ages for some overpriced, underwhelming food, an overpriced tasteless beer or coffee or a minuscule, exorbitantly expensive tiny bottle of wine.

You make your way to the seats where while wait while you are blasted by whatever noise the hosting radio station you never listen to attempts to do some pre-match ‘entertainment’. You wait in a half-empty stadium, some come in late in front as the game starts forcing everyone to stand up and miss bits of the game. Of course the risk in professional sport is you can find yourself paying money to watch a bad performance.

At halftime you want some chips so again you line up but find some eftpost machines don’t work so have to change queues.

The second half might improve, it might not. Then you stand up and make your way slowly out of the stands, and then out of the stadium and along the road back to car. Once in the car we make our way out into the traffic and are on our way home.

From leaving home to returning it takes on average 3.5 hours.

You have been doing this, most often at night, often in winter, since February…

For over a decade in New Zealand professional rugby is watched in half-empty stadiums as supporters decide that the time involved, rugby played and the surroundings/entertainment/facilities/provision of food and drink are not worth venturing away from home to encounter.

Nine months is a long time to maintain enthusiasm for a variable experience.

At home, if I have some spare time I might turn on the TV and watch a game, but I can eat and drink what I want, when I want, in the warmth and comfort of my home – and then during or after the match I can do what I want when I want. In short the game gets fitted around the rest of my life and that of my family. Most games are second-rate at best – and most are often meaningless. And that is the problem – for increasing numbers of supporters most rugby – because there is too much of it – has become increasingly meaningless.

A decade ago I was talking with a fellow rugby-tragic who had season tickets next to me. He commented that he now never watched most rugby on TV as it had become a low-quality meaningless extended blur. And yet for him – and for me also – the ritual of coming to the rugby, to live rugby, over 9 months was losing its allure.

What complicates matters is the way that Super Rugby is not really professional in being an open market. To play for the All Blacks you must play in New Zealand and so our professional rugby teams are effectively a closed shop of players – and increasingly, a closed and limited shop of talent. The NZRFU is really the grand patriotic collectivist corporation and the Super franchises are the shop-fronts for the collectivist brand and product.

Speaking sociologically, we are facing disenchantment. In turning the game professional we have turned it into just another form of entertainment we pay to watch. The exchange has increasingly become drained of sustainable meaning. This is the singular problem facing New Zealand rugby.