Whatever you think about the state of rugby league at the moment, its fans do a good job of kicking it while it’s down.
You didn’t have to look far to find people moaning about the attendance at the Challenge Cup final at Wembley, which came in at a respectable 68,525 in the first year that the Club Wembley seats weren’t counted.
It’s not only fans that criticised. Pundits, past players and others in the media were quick to bemoan it, as well as several others who didn’t bother going themselves.
Wigan and Hull are two of the game’s most well supported teams, though both average under 15,000. For them to attract a figure that is more than double their weekly average is good going.
The figure was only 7000 shy of last season’s football Championship play-off final between Huddersfield Town (average 25,000) and Reading (average 18,000), which was reported on https://www.wunderdog.com/.
Some might call the Challenge Cup final rugby league’s big day out, but it also has the Magic Weekend and Super League Grand Final, which are both well attended events too – with room to grow.
People want to complain about the state of the game, yet still expect sell out crowds at all major events. As it is, there is room for improvement. But we shouldn’t knock our game.
Other sports would give their left arm for showpiece events at Wembley, or indeed the significant financial handout the sport receives from Sky.
Instead, rugby league seems to sit there and do nothing but moan.
Those who read my regular columns will know that I am far from a rugby league apologist, and I am often critical of the way the game is run and what decisions are made.
But it’s time we stopped picking holes in absolutely everything, and stopped making excuses.
Recently, I made the point that Toronto Wolfpack have been adulated and been given much praise, rightly, for their marketing and fan engagement efforts which has seen them attract 7,500 fans most weeks in their debut season, despite some blowout scorelines.
There are many falling over their feet to praise Toronto, which is great, but the fact is that they aren’t doing anything that other clubs couldn’t do.
We should look in other sports and see this for ourselves. Take ice hockey, for example. There is a team called Braehead Clan based in Scotland, founded in 2011. From a standing start, with no marketing budget, they have generated a 4,000 weekly attendance just from the sort of marketing and fan engagement efforts that Toronto are undertaking.
Ice hockey is a sport with no paid TV deal, so the teams don’t get any central funding and have to generate the revenue themselves.
To me, it seems that in rugby league clubs have become too accustomed to getting handouts and people just turning up, rather than not putting effort in to marketing or indeed running themselves as businesses that have to make money.
So for as much as everyone wants to see the expansion of the game, it’s not the location of Toronto that’s causing the excitement – it’s what they’re doing with it.
Whatever your thoughts on Magic Weekend, it has become a key part of the calendar. To look at another sport again, rugby union has the so-called London Double Header, which helps kick off the new Premiership Rugby season this weekend.
This sees two games one day – a far more fan friendly experience than Magic Weekend, because who wants to sit on a plastic seat through four games – in front of a sell-out crowd at Twickenham.
Could it be that a more marketable option for Magic Weekend would be to have two days of double headers, rather than the current format which feels like overkill.
Speaking of Twickenham, what we wouldn’t give to have a central home for rugby league. Somewhere that cup semi-finals, internationals, big play-off games and other representative matches could be played.
Instead, we have to wait until the last possible moment to learn about when internationals are going to be played and when and where Magic Weekend is going to be held, while we wait for the football fixture calendar to be released.
That’s time that the game loses in marketing itself, its teams, its players and its sponsors.
Maybe it’s that lack of forward planning and lack of certainty that’s putting fans and sponsors off alike.