In-depth scrutiny over various elements of the Pro12 expansion has been intense. But one question remains; will the Pro14 draw in new fans to rugby?
The most obvious answer to this question is yes. An increased TV viewership from the South African TV audiences stands to benefit the Pro12’s rugby federations significantly. However, we must approach this story with caution as these profits are far from guaranteed.
Importantly, South African fans must follow the competition to make it profitable. The risk of the fans feeling unable to relate to a European competition is considerable. A serious issue could arise should South African audiences be unable to watch their teams live.
It may increase consumption of rugby matches by relatively casual fans. Possibly drawing this casual South African fan into watching teams such as Leinster or Ospreys that they have never seen live. Or, in fact, have never taken much interest in at all. Sudden changes within media formats tend to result in increased consumption of it. The Pro14 may bring these fans back to rugby.
This sudden increase in viewership due to the change in competition can be repeated in the north as well. Casual supporters who have had no or little interest in the Cheetahs or Southern Kings may find themselves tuning in.
Both attendance at matches and TV consumption are likely to increase when fans’ respective teams are hosting one of the South African newbies. This will hugely benefit the respective federations, certainly in the first season at least.
However, one of the most serious flaws to this new expansion is the implementation of a ‘group’ system. While this may not seem significant, in Europe, group systems are traditionally for knock-out tournaments. This is possibly due to football, with the Champions League and World Cup utilising these formats. The recent hysteria over the place of derbies in the Pro14 illustrates how alien this system is to Europeans in a league.
The reason that the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 work so well is their simplicity. It is easy to explain to new fans how the competition works. Everybody plays everybody twice, and the number of points you accumulate dictates your club’s fate. Be it the playoffs, qualifying for Europe or relegation, new fans can quickly understand the competition.
Subjecting fans to the group-style league could alienate them. They already have a group-style tournament in Europe, and now they will be dealing with a similar, yet significantly more convoluted system domestically. This lack of contrast could potentially lead to some fans becoming bored.
A fundamental issue
A significant flaw of the Pro12 was that outside the top four, matches did not really matter. The lack of relegation in the competition is a significant element. If the consequences of a team finishing bottom is that they don’t get to compete in Europe for a year, does that really sound compelling to a new fan? Importantly, fans won’t turn out if their team is always safe.
The creation of the Pro14 must be used by the nations to assess why they had to import teams to increase fan revenue. New fans must be made at home, as there is no guarantee the South African sides will stay forever.
Author: Rob Morris
I think that this is one of the more imaginative ways for a student to avoid focusing on their degree. Born in London to Irish parents has left me with a peculiar network of teams which I support. A huge rugby and football fan, with an interest in other sports such as Rugby League, Gaelic and Boxing.