“A stadium of four million people” was how New Zealand pitched itself in its winning bid to host next year’s rugby world cup. Marketing hyperbole, of course, but it’s close enough to the mark. Kiwis love their rugby, which is just as well, because it’s become hard for them to escape.
The steady creep of an ever-expanding rugby season means international fixtures now begin in February and continue until November. “Rugby fatigue” has entered the lexicon. As the New Zealand Rugby Union’s commercial manager Paul Dalton puts it: “There’s not too many fans out there who don’t already have All Blacks’ gear in their cupboard.”
To find new audiences, administrators have started looking to Asia, the new battleground for the world’s sporting codes. The Bledisloe Cup – for nearly 80 years, the symbol of rugby supremacy between Australia and New Zealand – is now contested on neutral soil. In 2008, the All Blacks downed the Wallabies in Hong Kong; the following year, they beat them in Tokyo. Next month, New Zealand hopes to repeat the feat when the Antipodean neighbours return to Hong Kong.
While neither previous match sold out, both turned a profit, generating healthy merchandise sales and the type of buzz necessary to grow television audiences and encourage more Asian players. A lack of local athletes on the field did not seem to deter fans who, although unfamiliar with many of the visiting players, were drawn by the reputation of the All Blacks, who are to rugby what Brazil is to football. This year, though, ticket sales have been poor. Six weeks from kick-off, only 14,000 of 40,000 available seats have been sold, prompting speculation the match will be shifted. Dalton insists the match will proceed, but although the desire remains to grow the game in Asia, it seems unlikely that the All Blacks will return to Hong Kong.
So why has the showcase failed to draw a crowd? Hong Kong bloggers point to high ticket prices (up to HK$1,250/€122), the fact the match is a dead rubber (New Zealand have already secured the Bledisloe this season), and a lack of novelty the second time around. The main audience attracted to the first match was actually Hong Kong’s large Commonwealth expat community, not the Chinese, who have little traditional connection to the sport.
Dalton agrees, saying it was always understood it would take time to build a following in a new market. He blames the recession for affecting the two audiences it was hoped might make the fixtures financially viable in the interim. “There are fewer expats there than there were before the downturn,” he observes, “and the fans from Australasia who travelled to the first game are spending their money on World Cup tickets instead.”
Many in the crowd for the historic first Asian Bledisloe test were “rugby tourists”, rather than local converts. In straitened economic times, it probably makes better sense to put the Asian rugby experiment on hold, and cater to the insatiable New Zealand appetite for rugby within the “stadium of four million” instead.