Why the Grand Final crowd gives rugby league chance to reset

James Gordon
Grand Final crowd general view at Old Trafford

The crowd at Old Trafford at the weekend was the lowest a Grand Final has seen there since 1998.

The 45,177 figure was impacted, compared to usual, by Catalans involvement – particularly given the current travel restrictions and the short notice.

Had, say, Leeds or Wigan made it, the figure may well have been 10,000 or so more.

REPORT: Catalans 10-12 St Helens: Saints complete three-peat

But ultimately, the issue is that the neutral pound is being stretched further than it ever has before.

Crunching the numbers

Year Grand Final Challenge Cup Magic Weekend* Average**
1998 43,533 60,669 52,101
1999 50,717 73,242 61,980
2000 58,132 67,247 62,690
2001 60,164 68,250 64,207
2002 61,138 62,140 61,639
2003 65,537 71,212 68,375
2004 65,547 73,734 69,641
2005 65,728 74,213 69,971
2006 72,575 65,187 68,881
2007 71,352 84,241 58,831 61,670
2008 68,810 82,821 63,144 61,068
2009 63,259 76,560 59,749 56,565
2010 71,526 85,217 52,043 60,922
2011 69,107 78,482 60,214 59,232
2012 70,676 79,180 63,716 60,571
2013 66,281 78,137 62,042 58,480
2014 70,102 77,914 64,552 60,097
2015 76,412 80,140 67,841 63,491
2016 70,202 76,235 68,276 60,192
2017 77,432 68,525 65,407 59,554
2018 64,892 50,672 64,319 49,241
2019 64,102 62,717 56,869 51,751
2021 45,177 40,000 60,866 38,537

*Magic Weekend figure shows total attendance across both days
**the overall average is calculated by taking the three total attendances and dividing by four days (taking into account the two days of Magic Weekend)

The Challenge Cup final attendance peaked for the match between Warrington and Leeds in 2010, while the Grand Final high came in 2015 – when Leeds beat Wigan.

Magic Weekend’s best recorded total attendance was at St James’ Park in 2016.

Back in 2004, there was a Challenge Cup final at Wembley in May and then the Grand Final at Old Trafford in October.

Fast forward to today, and your average Super League fan is having to shell out on a trip to France and Magic Weekend to follow their team, as well as consider being a neutral at Wembley or Old Trafford.

With purse-strings tightening, and of course COVID, we may now be seeing the full impact of that.

Neutral indifference

That’s without considering a portion of neutral fans have been alienated for one reason or another during that time.

Fans of Championship and League 1 clubs in general might be reluctant to support Super League events owing to the noises around central funding and cutting adrift certain clubs.

Bradford, Castleford and Hull KR fans may still be a bit miffed with the powers that be following attempts to de-classify their academies.

Even community rugby league participants may vote with their feet and not attend in protest at the new membership fee being rolled out.

What’s becoming clearer is that the sport cannot simply rely on the same fans turning out for every big event it does.

The figures look to be on a decline because people are deciding between Wembley, Magic or Old Trafford.

This new low at least gives Super League’s marketing people the chance to reset and gradually grow the crowd back up to where it ought to be.

Those who didn’t attend, for whatever reason, missed out on a competitive final.

It will now be able how rugby league can attract new fans to pad out the numbers – sitting alongside the supporters of both participating clubs and the declining neutral fan numbers.

There has been a noticeable decline across major rugby league events since 2017 – it remains to be seen what the plan is to correct that.

But take the positives – it was 45,177 more than attended last year.

A record attendance

A more significant Grand Final attendance was highlighted by long-time champions of the women’s game, Forty-20 live, over the weekend.

The 4,235 that watched St Helens win the Women’s Super League at Headingley was a new record women’s rugby league attendance in the UK.

Not only that – but it bettered the 3,797 that watched the Manchester derby between United and City at Leigh Sports Village on Saturday, which was broadcast live on BBC.

Given the vast resources and coverage afforded to women’s football, rugby league’s achievement should not go unnoticed.