Super Rugby stadium attendance is an oft-raised topic, especially in years when the Stormers are doing well and often play in front of a full or close to full house at Newlands.
Strong attendance numbers in Cape Town, Pretoria and Brisbane (I guess those are the three that fill their stadia the best? Maybe Christchurch as well?) are often contrasted against poorer numbers in Jo’burg, Sydney or Auckland.
Of particular interest to me, because I grew up there, is Durban. The Sharks command a very loyal crowd, King’s Park is easy to get to, easy to park at and generally a pretty good party. Yet, Durban is known for not filling its stadium. Even the test match against England in June did not pack out the outer, upper curves of the suicidally steep East Stand. But more about Durbs later.
Prevailing wisdom examines rugby audiences on a national basis. We all know that rugby union is the third biggest football code behind rugby league and Aussie Rules in Australia, and that cricket is the biggest sport there besides. While I was in Sydney in May, I went to watch the Tahs take on the Bulls before an average audience (around 18,000), and what was most interesting was the feel of the crowd. It was an elite audience - bankers and lawyers and doctors - not a populist crowd.
So, we tend not to expect big audiences in Australia - except in Brisbane, where (correct me if I’m wrong, Aussies) rugby league and Aussie Rules hold a little less sway than in NSW or Victoria.
New Zealand surprises because they absolutely live and breathe rugby down there. It is without doubt the national sport. Yet, their stadia are often not full (Tank Lanning mentioned that Waikato were still trying to flog 1,200 tickets to last week’s semi-final a few hours before the game).
It’s natural to consider absolute numbers in terms of stadium seats, but not in terms of the supporting population around a stadium. On TV, you see empty seats at King’s Park and you think, “What the hell, Durban? Come on man, get down to the game! Cape Town can, so why can’t you?”
It’s very easy to equate Newlands and King’s Park because they’re pretty close in so many ways. Newlands takes 51,900 and King’s Park 55,000. Cape Town’s population is 3.35m and Durban’s 2.84m (according to the CIA World Factbook). The Stormers and the Sharks are both popular teams with top quality players.
So why does Newlands pretty consistently attract bigger audiences than King’s Park?
I’ve wondered this for many years, and having grown up in Durban and attended university in Cape Town, the answer seemed obvious to me: in my experience, Durbanites tend to be more apathetic than Capetonians. They’re more likely to stay at home and watch the game on TV, or round a mate’s house around the pool/braai, than go to the stadium.
Durban likes to underplay achievement, and to take life with a pinch of salt. It’s culturally ingrained for the place to feel a bit hard done by because the Nationalist government sidelined this English/Zulu province in favour of the highveld and the Cape for 46 years, only to be followed by a Xhosa-led ANC (in the early days of post-Apartheid at least) that had fought a low-grade civil war against Zulu Inkatha supporters in the province (Sorry, I’m a historian’s son, I can’t help but get carried away with this stuff…) When I moved to Cape Town to attend UCT, it took me a good few months to get out of (a) treating everything with a healthy dose of sarcasm and (b) being surprised that the Capetonians and folks from Gauteng and the rest of the country who I met there were genuinely enthusiastic about stuff at face value.
Anyway, I’m pleased to announce, I think I’m wrong about apathy being the main factor in the King’s Park crowd numbers, especially as it doesn’t add up when you look at the stadium experience, which is basically a big party - braais and music and a great family vibe for a few hours before the game in the practice fields that surround the stadium, and a party with live music, dancing and good times until late in the night after the game (especially if the Sharks win). It’s a famous rugby experience - and that suggests that everyone at the game is not apathetic. So are they the unapathetic minority? No, I don’t think so.
I went to the Tahs v Bulls game in Sydney with my brother-in-law and a couple of guys he knows, one of whom was Keith Gleeson, a Sydneysider with Irish blood who played flank for Ireland. Keith made a comment that I realise now has taken two months to properly sink into the General’s crowded and ever-slowing brain: looking at the 18,000 strong crowd (Sydney Football Stadium’s capacity is 45,500) he said, “This is a pretty good crowd for the Tahs. The thing is, they should play at a 20,000 seater stadium, not here - it always looks empty here.”
At the time, I thought, “Sure, I know rugby isn’t that big in Sydney because of rugby league”. But what I should have thought is, “What is size of the rugby-following population in Sydney?”
And, last week, this came swimming back out of my murky subconscious as I pondered the Cape Town vs Durban question. We tend to assume that rugby occupies pretty much the same status in all South African cities. But what if it doesn’t?
What if Newlands is able to draw better crowds because there are more rugby fans in the greater Cape Town area? Wouldn’t that really be the simplest explanation?
So, I’ve done some research and some maths to try put some numbers against this. Some caveats about this:
- I’ve drawn a whole bunch of assumptions
- I’ve made some hopefully vaguely fair calculations on the popularity of rugby amongst the genders and language-speaking groups, mostly because this demographic data is available and research on numbers of rugby fans isn’t (to me at least)
- The numbers that come out the other end have a large margin of error, because this is just a bru theory
The CIA World Factbook has greater Cape Town’s population at 3.35m. How many of these people are likely and able to go to a rugby game?
Language - It’s hopefully fair to say that the city’s English and Afrikaans speakers will be its major source of rugby fans, so I’ve included a high percentage of these citizens and a small percentage of speakers of other languages. This leaves me with 2.34m Capetonians.
Age - I’ve then portioned out the population aged 20 - 60, which I reckon is the core audience for stadium attendances. 1.94m citizens left.
Gender - I’ve made some assumptions on gender. We know that SuperBru attracts 4 males to every 1 female. I need a rough number for how many of each gender are likely to be interested enough in rugby (or the social experience around it) to go to a game. How about 1 in 2 men, and 1 in 10 women? 582,000 Capetonians left.
Availability - a multitude of factors influence whether those 582,000 can go to a game on a given weekend - prior arrangements, transport, finances, work, health - etc. So how about we say that on any given matchday, 30% of that population is able to get to the game? This leaves us 174,822 people as a potential pool of attendees.
Actual attendance - of the available pool of 174,822, not everyone is going to go every weekend, right? If 30% of the pool go to Newlands on a given Saturday, the stadium is full.
Same exercise for Durban. Bear in mind that the city has very different demographics from Cape Town. Working backwards through the numbers, applying the same assumptions I used for Cape Town, I come to a pool of available, willing rugby fans on any given Sharks matchday of 91,634. To fill King’s Park, 60% of this population needs to go to the game.
That’s double the 30% I calculated for Cape Town. On my admittedly very broad assumptions, Durban has half the number of rugby fans as Cape Town, yet its stadium is 3,500 seats bigger than Cape Town’s. So is it any wonder, really, that Newlands fills more regularly and more easily than King’s Park?
What about elsewhere?
By the logic above, Gauteng’s massive population should easily pack Ellis Park for every Lions game. In reality, you can barely see the crowd for all the empty red seats at that stadium. However, I think it’s fair to say that the consistent underperformance of the Lions in Super Rugby combined with the awkwardness of the stadium location and the diversity of support bases in the population (many Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Cheetahs fans live and work in Gauteng) is sufficient to overcome any natural population effect.
This is backed up by Ellis Park generally easily selling out when the Springboks play.
Whilst Pretoria’s population is only 1.4m, in reality, Loftus Versveld is able to draw audience from across Gauteng. Based on SuperBru stats, I’d say there is probably easily a larger physical Bulls fanbase across Gauteng than the Stormers/WP fanbase in Cape Town. They have more transport challenges, but if the Bulls are doing well people generally don’t mind making the trek, and Loftus numbers are generally good.
We’ve already discussed Australia - by the logic above, the Aussie cities will need an even greater percentage of their rugby union fans to pitch up to fill their stadia.
Maybe this theory works for New Zealand too. The Cake Tin in Wellington always seems to have lots of yellow seats on show. But Kiwis are rugby-mad, right? So why can’t they fill that stadium? What’s wrong with them?
Well, the population of Wellington is 393,400. The Cake Tin holds 36,000 people. Even if we assume that rugby is 30% more popular amongst Kiwi men than South African men, and 100% more popular amongst the women, that still only produces just over 100,000 citizens in the available pool of potential stadium attendees. More than 1 in 3 of those must attend every game to fill the Cake Tin.
Backing this up
Can we find some correlation for this convivial blather elsewhere?
The TV numbers
Repucom’s stats for TV viewership as shared by Front Row Grunt suggest that a truly epic South African Super Rugby derby can pull 900,000 watchers on TV. A typical derby is around 600 - 700,000.
How does that fit with my hokey estimates? I’ve got about 900,000 rugby followers in Cape Town and Durban combined (remember I whittle down how many of those can actually go to a stadium on any given matchday). Based on SuperBru relative SuperBru traffic, the rest of the country should inflate that number by a factor of 3.5 giving us a total of 3.15m South African rugby fans. Just under 1 in 3 rugby fans watching a huge derby on TV? Probably about right?
SuperBru traffic numbers should be a pretty good indicator of the relative sizes of the rugby audiences in each region.
22% of SuperBru’s South African traffic originates out of the Western Cape, to just 7% from KZN. My demographic numbers above suggest that Durban has half the number of rugby fans as Cape Town, but it could be even more extreme - SuperBru says more like a third. For interest, 63% of our SA traffic comes from Gauteng.
The size of the stadia relative to the size of the rugby watching population of each Super Rugby city is not nearly consistent across the different venues. We should try not to judge a crowd by comparing it to another city, and instead judge it in its own, local, context.
And a little healthy Wikipedia of King’s Park, Newlands, Sydney Football Stadium, Wellington and the Cake Tin