Build it and they will come, or will they?

By Dave Swanton

Since lockdown I have been as busy as possible, launching my website, writing a few chapters of my book (and having the content of one chapter legally checked!) and taken part in several Zoom meetings about sport in general. Finance, administration, marketing, media, operational issues including television coverage. At 63, I thought I had seen most things but the ‘new normal’ is going to be a far cry from what we have ever seen or experienced in the past.

At the top level with Premiership Rugby the money coming into the game should help but down a few levels and sport is on the ropes and its going to take something special to make sure clubs survive. One quick example is the capacity at grounds. With two metre distancing you can only fit in 50 people down the long side of a ground and if there are terraces it will mean you will have to keep at least three steps clear. Turnstiles on entry will need wiping down like supermarket trolleys when every single person enters the ground, toilet facilities were still being discussed at the point I wrote this and sitting in the stands is going to be a nightmare.

Every ground will need a health and safety checks and if stewards ever made you think they were officious little men in high viz jackets, you ain’t seen anything yet!

Attracting a crowd and regaining fans confidence will be a big ask. Don’t kid yourself that when the game restarts, people will flood back to watch. We can’t, as a nation, decide whether it’s safe for children to return to school and the last time I checked, schooling was not an option. Parents won’t be keen on taking children to grounds where spacing is at a premium.

How fans react to refunds from the season that didn’t complete is going to be interesting. If season tickets were paid for by credit card, they are covered by insurance and if a club refuses to refund, the card company will get involved if requested and could (I have seen this in the past) stop you using their card facilities going forward.

Television will play a massive role in re-engaging people as they have all been doing different things for three months. Yes we have seen repeats of big games but sport on television is about the ‘Now’ and what may happen.

The Rugby Union calendar is and always has been crammed with very little elbow room. If a global calendar was introduced would it been the Southern Hemisphere teams playing during our winter or the Northern Hemisphere clubs playing during the summer? They said that Super League would not work in summer months but 25 years on, it does very well.

In my view the Premiership is not in a good position at the moment. There appears to be a lack of unity. Some wanting to spend cash and hire the cap, others trying to be more reserved and keep costs under control. I said earlier this year and stand by it that Saracens were made an example of, but they were not alone in creative accountancy and bending the rules. The reason Saracens were nailed is that they were successful and ‘won’ trophies. Others who were probably doing similar things to Saracens ‘won’ nothing. You have to wonder if Saracens hadn’t been so successful; would they have been punished as heavily or indeed at all?

If the season has to be played out Saracens have a big part to play. They could be in three competitions at the same time. The Premiership, the Championship and the Heineken Cup! With players leaving Saracens for pastures new you have to wonder what sort of team they will field! Will their Premiership record be expunged? If so it could put a slightly different twist on the league table. There is nothing coming out of Premier Rugby HQ at present so the clubs/sponsors and fans are all in a vacuum. Days come and go and most sports are making progress on restarts. Football is allowing closer player contact but rugby union is reluctant to press the re-start button. Sale Sharks did restart some form of low key training but were immediately told to stop! If the sport is not careful all the good work down the years will have been wasted as people drift to other activities.

Cricket was on a massive high after the World Cup in 2019 but the ECB seem to be dragging their heels on a restart and the game stands to lose a figure around £380 million in 2020. That figure may never be recovered and send the sport into the wilderness. Rugby Union needs its International ‘fix’ and as I stated earlier the calendar is crammed but room needs to be made available for the Six Nations/Autumn Internationals and the Lions tour in 2021.

Rugby Union has a big profile because of the International game and it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at the 12 team Premiership, it will never match football and is probably (without big games at Twickenham) on a level with EFL Division 1 at best. In my mind the Premiership needs unity, it needs to keep the cap on money men playing ‘Top Trumps’ with signings.

Big signings do not guarantee big crowds. My old club Sale Sharks have some of the World’s biggest named stars in their ranks including Faf de Klerk but despite them playing attractive rugby they cannot pull big crowds to their Salford base at the AJ Bell Stadium. I was there when the club grew from crowds of 1800 to 11000 full houses and ticket touts at Stockport. For years the Salford location has been blamed for low crowds but looking in from outside and talking to people I am not sure anymore. There has been talk about a stadium in Sale but would that guarantee big crowds? It’s a massive gamble.


This article was recently published in the Summer 2020 issue of Rugby Blindside.

Read the full issue here:

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