HERIOT’S coach Phil Smith suggested on Monday that one radical solution to the seemingly interminable decline in attendances at BT Cup Finals Day might be for tickets to be handed out for free.
His club’s clash against Melrose is the showcase event of six Cup, Bowl and Shield Finals involving men and women at Murrayfield on Saturday, and Smith insists that excitement levels within the clubs involved will be through the roof by kick-off time – but there is no escaping the sad fact that the profile of club rugby in Scotland has severely diminished in the twenty years since Hawick defeated Watsonians in the first ever Scottish Cup Final.
On that occasion, there was a crowd in excess of 22,000 at the national stadium – which is more than twice the figure achieved when Hawick once again reached the Final last season, this time losing out to Boroughmuir.
The nadir in terms of Cup Finals Day crowds was the year before that when the event was moved to Broadwood Stadium in Cumbernauld because a new hybrid playing surface was being laid at Murrayfield. Only 3,322 attended that spectacle, which was a shame because the 8,000 capacity venue is just about the right size for a full-house going by recent averages.
“The benefit that the clubs get from the cup final is they get to keep their gate receipts – because there’s no prize money. [So] make it free and put up prize money, would be an option. Basically, you can walk into any place and hand out a bunch of tickets and say: It’s free entry on Saturday, come along. And maybe people would just walk up because they know it’s a free entry,” said Smith
Revenue from tickets sold at the turnstile on the day does not currently get distributed between the competing clubs, and the financial reward from selling tickets beforehand is surprisingly small – estimated to be between £3,000 and £10,000 depending on the club – meaning that the SRU would not have to break the bank to offer a reasonable prize pot in lieu of ticket sale proceeds.
The value of Smith’s suggestion is clear, however there is a danger that by giving it away for free the product will be devalued. The SRU are also likely to point out that the logistical difficulties caused by having absolutely no idea how many people might walk up on the day makes this proposal unfeasible.
There is a host of reasons why the profile of club rugby – and therefore attendance figures at Finals Day – has diminished so dramatically over the past two decades. Principally, the creation of a professional tier means that we don’t have the opportunity to see internationalists playing at that level on a weekly basis – with an obvious impact in terms of capturing the public’s imagination.
While there was plenty of debate in the early days of professionalism about the wisdom of going down the pro team route, that ship has now sailed and rather than quibble over past disagreements it is necessary to focus on what can be done in the present to improve the current situation.
A big start would be for the event to be mentioned somewhere on the front page of the Scottish Rugby Union’s own website. On Monday afternoon there were adverts selling tickets for the Guinness Pro 12 Final at Murrayfield on 28th May, for both pro teams’ upcoming home matches, and fot the imminent launch of a season pass for next year’s Six Nations – but there was absolutely nothing about the biggest day of the year in clubland which was taking place in just five days’ time.
Iain Milne, the former Scotland and Lions legend, and current vice-president of Heriot’s, has spent much of the last two weeks trying to distribute free tickets to kids in and around Edinburgh but has been hampered by the fact that schools have been on holiday.
“At the moment, there is a meeting the week after the semi-finals [which were on 26th March this year] and then we start trying to shift tickets – but all the schools are closed, kids are on holiday and the youth sections at clubs are winding down for the summer,” he said.
“Surely, there is no reason why we can’t start giving away these free tickets before we know who is in the final. Of course kids want to come and support their own club, but I’m pretty sure that if we get a ticket into their hand then they will come along anyway and enjoy a great day out, and that’s what we all want – kids getting involved in the sport and wanting to play the game.”
Scheduling is another issue which needs addressed as a matter of urgency, with fixture congestion and a lack of focus in what the clubs are trying to achieve after Christmas a long standing issue.
“Up until Christmas it was kind of in your face and we were playing every week, which was great. Now it’s become a bit disjointed, because the run in to it hasn’t been perfect for either club. You’re playing then stopping, playing then stopping. I guess the lead-up to it is the key, and the lead-up has been so fragmented from February through March. I don’t know how much people will have been aware of the club game more recently,” points out Smith.
By common consent, this season has been a particular disaster at all levels of the club game in terms of building continuity through playing regular matches, with bad weather and international weekends wreaking havoc to create a situation where the rush to get the season completed means there are 38 matches at 1st XV level scheduled to be played elsewhere across the country on Cup Finals Day. That is an awful lot of focus being diverted away from the big event.