Magic Weekend could reinvigorate season’s start

The RFL’s decision to move the Magic Weekend back to Cardiff (will it once against be known as Millennium Magic?) has, as you would expect, divided opinion among rugby league fans. According to polls most seem to favour a return to the Welsh capital, but it seems some aren’t pleased that the event will now be played in mid-February, while some others have never been fans of the event in the first place.

Part of me does want to be cynical about the Magic Weekend with its games played in a three-quarters empty stadium and the official crowd figures that are pretty much a work of fiction. But I can’t really, because I’ve never actually been to the Magic Weekend, and my gut feeling is that if I did go I’d probably enjoy it.

My favourite day of the rugby league year used to be the National League Finals Day, with three fixtures one after the other at a single venue (this was a time when the NL1 Grand Finalists were actually playing for a place in Super League … thank goodness we’ve evolved beyond such stupidity and the current favourite for promotion is a team that’s been languishing in mid-table). The Magic Weekend is a very similar concept, so based on that I can only assume it’s an enjoyable day. That said, the event isn’t without its problems.

As mentioned above many of the games are played out inside mainly-empty stadium. The aggregate crowd for the first event was 58,831, derived by combining the attendances of the Saturday – 32,384 – and the Sunday – 26,447. Leaving aside the question of how many people were counted twice because they attended both days, the stadium will never be that full because people have a tendency to turn up only for their own game and not the other two / three. The NL Finals Day taught me that rugby league supporters have an alarming habit of buying tickets for events that boast three matches but refusing to watch the first two in favour of a few more hours in a local pub.

To an extent that’s understandable; it might get a bit tedious sitting through four games back to back. But it could be argued that itself is a problem with the whole concept, and that most supporters are only really interested in their own team’s fixtures. Plus it doesn’t look too good on television when an event that receives such grand billing is seen to be played in front of a massive backdrop of plastic seating.

The choice of venue is one that has been debated. Some have suggested a venue in the heartlands such as Manchester might be preferable, as it will reduce prices for supporters (except travelling fans from London and Perpignan, but without wanting to sound harsh their numbers among the entire crowd are statistically negligible) and thereby ensure a bigger crowd. Also, if the event is now the opening round of fixtures, then Old Trafford would be a good choice, providing symmetry between the start and the end of the Super League season.  However, the Millennium Stadium holds a distinct advantage in its closing roof meaning that the event is safe from freakish weather conditions.

Staging the event in February is, to some, a bad move. It will be the St Valentine’s Day weekend, which is a problem for those who have to placate a non-rugby league-supporting romantic partner; it’s likely that people will still be suffering from post-Christmas debt; the aforementioned freakish weather conditions could make travel to Cardiff a bit tricky to say the least; and without a Bank Holiday Monday the fans will be unable to stay over on the Sunday night and travel home the following day.

Yet the idea of having such an event to make the start of the season a “big kick off” is an appealing one. In recent years the season has suffered from a staggered start, in which some odd fixtures from later rounds are played at the end of January and a full round of fixtures the following week. If the Magic Weekend can create a season-opening extravaganza of excitement and media coverage … well it probably can’t, but it stands a better chance than Crusaders v Leeds on a lonely Friday night.

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