What can Rugby Australia learn from college football?

What can Rugby Australia learn from college football?

Just six years ago 61,823 lively and excited fans packed ANZ Stadium for the Super Rugby grand final in which the Waratahs came out victorious against the Crusaders.

Although it was the grand final, Super Rugby crowds in the 2014 season tended to fill 16,913 seats per game. Yet since then Rugby Australia has seen their stands fall to an average attendance of 8798 fans per match, filling only 35 per cent of stadiums.

There is a clear crisis. Despite cheap tickets, fans do not want to attend, which creates to a slippery slope effect – less money from fans leads to less revenue for management, tensions arise regarding TV deals, fans begin to stop watching from home and before we know it Rugby Australia is in a financial crisis.

Now let’s cross the globe to the United States. In the 2018-19 NCAA (National Collegiate Athletics Association) football season, the South-eastern Conference (SEC) announced that US$651 million (A$895 million) were generated from games and distributed among its member universities, equating to just over US$44.6 million (A$61.3 million) per school, this excludes the other nine conferences which generated similar figures. The NFL, similarly, generated approximately US$14.2 billion (A$19.5 billion) in 2017.

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Of course factors such as a larger population and larger stadiums, among others, can be attributed to this sizeable revenue, but there is one thing that all three organisations (Rugby Australia, NCAA, NFL) share in common: their countries have a great sporting culture, something that Rugby Australia has not capitalised on.

The United States builds a culture from the ground up, starting at high school. Across the nation football games from top-ranked high schools are streamed on the National Football High School network (NFHS). Fans can identify with a team, especially those from small communities.

Australia has already hit the spot with this. The historic AAGPS (Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales) competition, consisting of some of the country’s most prestigious names, such as Newington College and the Kings School, pull in crowds of over 1000 students, fairly acceptable for a school community that normally consists of around 1500. These games pull in fans from their campus communities and alumni too, showing a clear fan-base and a team identity local community can stand with.

However, there is a missing piece within the high school system. Although a potential TV deal surrounding televising the GPS first-grade competition in New South Wales and Queensland was floated in 2019, it never gained any traction. Such a deal would give the air that rugby needs in the preliminary phases and would act as a feeder for talent to the developmental phases before players hit the pros.

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The high school culture is already there, so why not spread it into state-wide communities too? It has worked in the US through the NFHS network, so why not implement it here?

Yet fast forward one or two years and there is a missing link: the college phase. Rugby Australia’s developmental phase showcases top talent and exciting matches, yet it’s all hidden as a lack of culture and identity provides no return for potential television deals and sponsors. The number of Australians pursuing higher education has hit record numbers, with 2.8 million high school graduates pursuing a bachelor degree. As such, Australian universities are provided with the money and support base to create a sporting league of their own.

It’s a long stretch, but merging the teams of the Shute Shield with the money of the Group of Eight universities, which generated $66 billion dollars in revenue in 2017, could provide the grounds for the perfect identity Australian rugby needs, similar to one of college football.

Readers may wonder how this all ties into the topic of ‘What can Rugby Australia learn from college football?’. American sports develop not just their players but also their fans from the grassroots of the game.

The under-10s and under-11s football players grow up watching high school matches on television. These fans later evolve into aspiring and current college students who identify with their universities team. They are proud to associate with and represent their university, which creates a passion for the game.

Furthermore, providing prospective professional athletes with a full-ride scholarship, a free education at a world-class institution, all tied in with an opportunity to develop their skills under high-level coaching, provides them with an incentive and overall produces better-developed athletes for a high-level competition like Super Rugby.

Rugby Australia and Australian universities have the resources and tools to put on a program just as similar to the NCAA. A chance to create fine-tuned athletes not only makes the game more appealing for fans but makes Australian rugby more competitive in general.

Australians love to win, and by following the NCAA model of college sports they would have the chance to win more while putting on a show. More publicity would surely lead to filling the seats at matches and greater TV deals.

The opportunity is there for Rugby Australia to fix their culture issue and financial crisis, although it is up for them to take it. Although it would be a long road, such changes would pay off in the long run.