Selling out a stadium with 55 000 fan capacity within the space of three hours will have left many DHL Stormers or Munster supporters feeling disappointed at missing out but it is a great message for both South African rugby and the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
There were 20 000 people online, many of course who would have been buying more than just one ticket, when Ticketpro opened the URC final between the Stormers and Munster at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium on 27 May for business on Thursday.
It was a phenomenal response from the Cape rugby public in keeping with a trend that started when international rugby returned to normality in this country with six Springbok test matches being played in front of packed houses last year. But the ticket buying frenzy was of the sort that we haven’t witnessed for a franchise or provincial game in this country for many years.
From memory, the 2007 Super Rugby final between the Sharks and the Bulls in Durban was sold out in similar quick time, and the first ever all-South African final in that competition was played in front of a Kings Park crowd that on that particular day felt like it was too big for the venue. The congested car-park and the stands that were overflowing contributed to an almost claustrophobic atmosphere at kick-off.
But that was 16 years ago and it was the decider to a competition that South African teams had been playing in for 12 seasons. The rivalries were well established. The interest in franchise and provincial rugby back then, at a time when perhaps there wasn’t quite as much rugby overkill as there is in modern times and the economic climate was healthier, was much greater than it appeared to become subsequently.
LEVEL OF INTEREST IS CONTRARY TO THE PRE-Covid TREND
Before Covid arrived to really throw everything off-beam there were already concerns about dwindling crowds, with even the Stormers, the biggest draw for spectators in the Super Rugby era and in those days still playing at Newlands, seeing a marked drop off in supporters at their home games.
There were exceptions to the rule. Everyone likes a winning team, and when the Emirates Lions made three Super Rugby finals in a row, they did get the turnstiles at Emirates Airlines Park clicking. In particular, the 2017 final against Crusaders, the one where Kwagga Smith was red carded, saw the Johannesburg venue packed to capacity.
But that was an anomaly, and the point about this current Cape Town experience is that there’s been an incremental rise in the crowd numbers and the interest over three successive weeks - Stormers coach John Dobson wondered if it was just his team’s rivalry with the Bulls that drew 45 000 to the URC quarterfinal, but a week later the semifinal against little known Connacht drew more than 47 000.
COULD HAVE BEEN FILLED TWICE OVER
According to Stormers/WP employees, the clamour for tickets suggests that DHL Stadium could have been filled twice over if the venue boasted that sort of capacity, and last year’s final against the Bulls would have seen a capacity crowd were it not for the Covid limitation of 50 per cent of venue capacity.
As it is, the crowd to watch the final will be the biggest to watch the Stormers in either the URC or Super Rugby, eclipsing by 6 000 the 49 000 crowd that watched the Stormers play the Cats at Newlands in 1999.
That was the final league game of the famous 1999 Men in Black campaign, a season which until this one will have been remembered by those who were there as the most memorable since the franchise system brought into existence the Stormers (first the Stormers) as Western Province’s identity in international regional/club competition.
That record crowds (both the quarterfinal and the semifinal were recognised as records for the URC) can be drawn to DHL Stadium at this juncture is an indication of how rugby at the level just beneath the Springboks has started to become popular again, which is good for the rugby business in this country.
The Boks get to play at each of the big four venues - DHL Stadium, HollywoodBets Kings Park, Loftus and Emirates Airlines Park - at most just once in an international season so it is important for South African rugby to have the interest in the local teams edge back towards the levels of two decades ago.
NEW COMPETITION IS CATCHING ON
While having a winning team to support is obviously a big part of it, and in the Stormers’ case they are also an entertaining team to watch win or lose and regardless of your affiliation, the crowd numbers that have been drawn to the Cape Town games in the business end of the competition are also an indication that the URC is catching on with the South African public.
And by extension, the URC should benefit from the way the big crowds evidenced here send a message out to overseas clubs and fans who might have been lukewarm about South Africa’s inclusion. The average attendance for a URC game is around 10 000, with most of the overseas games played in small venues, so the Connacht players felt they had a special experience when they played in front of nearly 50 000 last week.
Overseas fans watching on television will feel a bigger draw to come to South Africa when they see their teams playing in front of such large crowds, and in time the Cape Town venue, with it's Table Mountain and city backdrop, could become the “must experience” date on the calendar that the English cricket team’s New Year tests in Cape Town have become for followers of that sport. That could particularly become the case for Heineken Champions Cup fixtures, with that competition being known for its draw for traveling supporters.
TICKET PRICING POLICY WAS CLEVER
Overseas rugby followers would also have noted that the tickets sold for the final were surprisingly cheap, ranging between below R100 and R380, which is something both the URC organisers and the Stormers administrators should be lauded for.
There was clear recognition in the negotiations between the respective parties over the pricing of tickets of the need to reward those who had already forked out cash in these harsh economic times for the quarterfinal and semifinal.
While the URC might stand to make less financially from this final than they would have had it been in Dublin, where tickets would have gone for 80 Euros (over R1500 if converted into SA currency) if the Stormers had played Leinster at the Aviva, they will benefit from the gains they will make from the outreach effect of having 55 000 people present at the showpiece game of the season.
In other words, people who get lured to the occasion will want to come back if they enjoy it, and having a venue like DHL Stadium filled to capacity will also improve the television product, which further sells the competition on its showpiece day.