Premiership rugby’s opening-round attendances have fallen to a five-season low. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, and not including the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season, the percentage of seats filled by punters in England’s top division during the first round has never been lower than last weekend.
The opening round saw 59 per cent of seats occupied by supporters, down from 66 per cent for the first weekend last year and a high of 82 per cent in 2018-19. And the figure drops to 55 per cent if you exclude the two matches postponed following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
Of the six matches to take place on Saturday and Sunday, Bristol Bears’ 22,021 attendance at their 27,000-seater Ashton Gate stadium was the fullest. It saw the West Country ground at 81 per cent capacity – despite the match being delayed due to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday.
At the other end of the spectrum, Sale Sharks’ Salford City Stadium – which hosted the other postponed match – was 33 per cent full, while Kingsholm was 68 per cent full to watch Gloucester’s record comeback on Sunday.
Digging further into the numbers, Sale mustered little more than 4,000 fans for their first-round victory and London Irish and Newcastle, too, failed to top the 10,000-mark.
Why is this figure important? Because it’s the required stadium capacity, under current rules, for clubs to enter the Premiership. Only two clubs – Bristol and Gloucester – exceeded that figure.
Premiership attendances hit a recent high of 82 per cent in the 2018-19 opening round, helped by the fact that the well-supported likes of Bristol, Gloucester and Harlequins played at home.
In the prior two seasons, however, and excluding matches moved to Twickenham in the opening round, the average stadium occupancy sat at 65 per cent.
So, then, the norm has been around two thirds full in recent seasons – excluding the abnormally high figure in 2018.
But with this year’s figure sitting at 55 per cent, Premiership Rugby bigwigs will no doubt be hoping to see a rise in the coming weeks. For reference, last year’s second round saw 58.3 per cent of the capacity occupied.
It’s entirely possible to point towards the cost of living crisis, the hangover from Covid-19 and fans choosing to attend less matches per year, but these numbers also point to the problem English club rugby has in marketing itself.
French rugby, on the other hand, is rolling along nicely. The Top14’s opening round saw attendances of 69 per cent but three of the sides – La Rochelle, Toulon and Bordeaux – had percentage occupancy of more than 90 per cent.
Premiership Rugby is likely to face questions if attendance numbers continue to fall, perhaps also from private investors CVC, who own a minority stake in the competition.
League chiefs have made no secret of their aim to improve its commercial appeal, with a fantasy rugby game one of the ideas thought to be in the pipeline.
But when the sport cannot fill its stadiums for the opening weekend across a number of seasons on the bounce – especially one in which football fans had no matches to attend – it suggests something could be done better.
The reality is, whether you include the postponements or not, rugby attendances in England’s top flight appear to be falling. Solutions are needed and needed quickly.