By MJW | August 28, 2008
“Worry is like a rocking-chair. It gives you something to do but gets you nowhere”. - Wayne Bennett
Building a supporter base
In the previous posts in this series I provided an introduction to the problems faced by Quins RL, the only top flight rugby league club operating in the South of England. In this post I will be looking more specifically at the attempts to build the supporter base, something that will be crucial in delivering not just financial stability, but ultimately will be needed to meet key criteria for ensuring the club’s license is renewed in three years time.
Stability is probably a good issue to start with; for the majority of the club’s near thirty year existence it has led a nomadic existence, not just moving from ground to ground, but churning through a series of identities. Each successive move represented a blow to any attempts to embed the club within the local community, let alone build lasting relationships with locals who more than likely perceive rugby league as an alien sport. There are fans that have supported the club since the beginning; but there are also many for whom the relationship has been transient, they were attracted along only to stay behind when the club later upped sticks and moved.
A friend and fellow season ticket holder who has been contributing thoughts to this series suggested that it’s important to challenge the received wisdom that the last three years, where the club has been known as Harlequins, has provided a period of genuine stability. At a superficial level there appears to be stability; it has a regular place to play (at least for the immediate future) and it has adopted a well known brand identity under which to play (although its appropriateness is a matter of debate). Appearances can and do deceive, inside three years the club has seen Ian Lenagan arrive as major investor only to depart for hometown club Wigan. CEO Nic Cartwright masterminded a recovery from insolvency followed by the Quins link-up only to move on at the end of the first season under the Quins umbrella. It was more than a year before Paul Brown was appointed as a new CEO, but even this came unstuck when he was forced to step down due to ill health after nine months at the helm.
On its return to The Stoop in 2006 the club attempted to learn from the success of partners Quins RU in developing a more robust match day offering. The rugby union club has been undoubtedly successful in not just growing attendances since the game became openly professional but in marketing an off field product to capitalise on the “social scene” that is a major strength of rugby union. Through this off field product Quins RU has grown a section of its supporter base who are primarily attracted to the overall match day experience to add to those supporters primarily focused with the sport itself.
Unfortunately the respective cultures and demographic appeals of the two codes appear to have restricted the effectiveness of porting the rugby union model over to the rugby league match day experience. Although the social element has been welcomed by many rugby league fans, it has not been as significant in developing the overall base as might have been hoped, although it is one revenue stream that was not present before. It could be argued that whilst rugby league creates a strong social bond amongst many fans, the game itself dominates the overall experience suppressing the potential of a social scene along rugby union lines.
In 2008 the club’s major initiative for driving sales amongst new or casual fans was the launch of a £65 season ticket for use with unallocated seating in the East stand (mainly used by away support). A £10 walk up match day ticket was also introduced for the same unallocated seats, partially in response to criticism from visiting fans about high prices the preceding season. But the most speculative move was to give away several hundred free £65 season tickets for distribution through local amateur rugby league clubs.
The paid £65 season tickets did not appear to achieve a significant take up, even though fans based in the premium Lexus stand were offered the opportunity to downgrade. It could be that the low price was intended to reduce potential churn from season ticket holders enticed into the Lexus using discounted offers in 2007, only to see steep prices rises in 2008. There is evidence that those customers who declined to renew in the Lexus at the higher prices were later targeted by a win back campaign centred around new discount offers, if this is true then it brings in to question the club’s erratic approach to pricing and bodes ill for 2009 season where some fans may feel alienated by enforced migration back to the East stand.
The success of the £10 walk up tickets is also questionable; although early season attendances showed a strong year on year rise the average crowd figure declined as the season progressed (statistical analysis strongly suggests this is at least partly driven by seasonal factors). A strong suspicion exists that whilst the emergence of Les Catalans Dragons as another “expansion” club has been positive for the overall sport it has been a negative for the number of away supporter travelling to The Stoop. Where previously a trip to play Quins RL/London Broncos had a unique selling point as a feature in an away break, that position has been supplanted in the affections of away fans by a trip to the South of France.
The reliance on away fans as a key driver behind attendances has often been criticised not just by “flatcappers” but by serious commentators; the combination of high fuel prices, the credit crunch, a skewed fixture list that sees some clubs visit more than once per season, and the rise of the South of France are all noteworthy factors. The end of the skewed fixture list in 2009 will be an interesting change, for whilst the trend of away supporter apathy may be stemmed the two new clubs (Celtic Crusaders and Salford City Reds are not noted for significant away support). In mitigation the evidence over the last few years suggests that despite some criticism from away fans the price of walk up match day tickets are relatively price inelastic, consequently an increase to £15 for most walk up seats is fairly low risk gamble. More crucial are likely to be the promotions needed to attract in curious potential supporters from the local environs, and the offers designed to convert these fans into regulars.
The £65 free season tickets for amateur clubs have not been a great success; with only a small number being used regularly the initiative will not return in 2009. The offer is thought to have originated with Paul Brown, partly as a thank you for the support amateur rugby league provides to player development but partly as a way of strengthening those ties in the run up to the licensing process. If that is the case then they have done their main job. A more positive take out it the ending of the argument over which day the club should play on; switching to Sundays during the amateur season has not delivered noticeable improvement whilst the feedback from the majority of fans shows a preference for Saturday matches.
In 2009 all games will be on Saturdays unless there is a clash with the rugby union club, only the question of kick off time remains to be decided. Some fans favour a traditional afternoon start leaving the evening free for their own purposes, others hope for evening kick offs which present greater opportunity for the development of a related social scene. It is a double edged sword, greater numbers of fans may stay behind for the post-match party given an evening match, but it may be a disincentive to fans facing long journeys home such as most away fans and there is the no small matter of how attractive to fans the post-match party really is (hints: clean the lines, change the gas on the Heineken, and get a proper cask bitter in).
On the corporate hospitality front the move to The Stoop, with its extensive hospitality facilities was considered a major step forward from previous home Griffin Park. Unfortunately reports from the most recent fans forum suggest that the Captains Club, a key part of the corporate offering, is loss making and therefore to be canned. The decision to close the Lexus stand in 2009 will also remove the most modern corporate facilities from the offering, although boxes will still be available in the East stand, and as these facilities have not experienced significant demand in the last three years it is unlikely to be a significant setback.
What we do not know yet is what marketing strategy the club will be following in 2009 to attract new supporters, in 2008 there has been a general disillusionment amongst existing fans about the perceived lack of initiatives coming from the club in this area. In the next post in this series I will focus specifically on the issues of marketing and brand strategy.
By MJW | August 12, 2008
“Every silver lining has its rain cloud”
There was little surprise when Harlequins RL were awarded a license for the next three years of Super League three weeks ago, but whilst the flat cappers of Widnes, Leigh and numerous other northern English towns kicked off their whining that rugby league is a local sport for local people, fans of Quins RL breathed a sigh of relief and braced themselves for the challenge ahead.
As anybody who is familiar with the history of the club knows nothing is ever straight forward when it comes to rugby league in London. Whilst a license secures the future of the club in the medium term the grip on that license is far from secure and by the time the next round of licensing comes in three years time significant improvements will need to have been delivered. Whilst the club is making strong progress in the development of players, the supporter base remains the lowest in the league and it stays debt free only by the generosity of the club’s benefactors making up shortfalls in revenue.
The resignation of affable CEO Paul Brown, who masterminded the license application, on health grounds was the first reality check. Browny has been a popular figure on the London rugby league scene for several years, as a driving force behind the development of the amateur game and was seen by many fans as a breath of fresh air when he took the helm in late 2007. Delivering the license was the major of high of his short reign, but it’s fair to say it was just the start of what he was planning.
But when Chairman Keith Hogg took the stand at the recent fans forum to announce details of next season’s match day packages any fans hoping that the gas on the Heineken would get changed for the first time in eons; or that Greene King IPA would be replaced by a proper cask bitter were to be disappointed if no shocked. What they weren’t prepared for was the genuinely controversial decision to close Lexus stand next season as a cost cutting measure.
Whilst closing the Lexus stand, the premium stand which hosts most season ticket holders, may help the club close down operating losses, it has angered many loyal fans. Two seasons ago the club’s strategy was to migrate as many season ticket holders out of the opposite East stand into the Lexus, now those fans will be asked to move back.
There is a rational explanation for the u-turn, opening both the Lexus and the East stand essentially entails opening the full ground, an inefficient practice given the low attendances for most games. Also, dispersing fans across the two stands is not attractive to the television cameras, especially given that the main camera gantry is pointed at the less populated East stand. The East stand also has the advantage of more extensive bar facilities, the Lexus simply not have sufficient bar capacity to host even an average crowd, whilst service in the members bar is already appalling at the best of times.
Restricting fans to the East stand with overflow going into neighbouring sections of the North and South stands may save costs, but it does smack of a lack of ambition, and more worryingly a lack of confidence amongst the management that it can increase attendances to a level where opening the entire ground is economically viable. The East stand is also further away from the pitch and some season ticket holders with disabilities or young children, who prefer to sit lower down in the stand, have legitimate concerns about the quality of their match day experience next season.
But what has really been exposed by the seating changes is the continued weakness of the club’s marketing strategy; if cost savings are to come from operational cuts fans want to know what, if any, of the money saved will be channelled into promotional activities designed to lift attendances? Most fans are under no illusions that the club has only meagre budgets for promotion, but there is a growing frustration that the marketing strategy has stagnated and the lack of innovation in finding cost effective ways to promote attendances is a serious problem which will only get worse.
A criticism that has been levelled in the past is the arms length distance at which the club has kept fan involvement since the re-brand as Harlequins. During the club’s days as London Broncos fans made a major contribution to the promotion and match day operation of the club, but such reliance on volunteers appeared to be shunned in favour of a more professional set-up under former Chairman Ian Lenagan. A fans marketing support group did appear for a time in the early days as Quins, but now appears dormant. In some respects the concept of the fans forum itself was a Paul Brown initiative to try and reconnect the club with the supporter involvement that served it well in the past.
There is also a growing suspicion that the club has trapped itself in a Catch-22 position, with the generosity of investors David Hughes and Ian Lenagan picking up operating losses, a paralysing fear of wasting money on promotions exists, but without these activities it’s hard to see revenue streams improved. In part two I will be discussing the broad strategy deployed by the club this season to develop the supporter base, and some of the proposals that have been raised both by the club and others to take this crucial issue forward.
By MJW | August 8, 2008
“Rugby League was a game whose laws had been codified by workers in the forlorn north of England; miners and mill-workers of Bradford and Wigan, Hull and Warrington, were invaded by that peculiar genius which concerns itself with the serious business of human games, and produced what was the supreme code, a cellular structure composed of thirteen players which mimicked life and art and war so exactly that it became them”. - Thomas Keneally
In a prior post I raised a subject close to my heart, the future of Harlequins RL. For the uninitiated Quins RL are the only top flight rugby league club operating in Greater London and their history, one of trials and tribulations, can serve as a major subplot in the history of the expansion of British rugby league over the last thirty years. It’s a subject that I’ve spent a lot of time debating and arguing with friends and fellow fans recently, and I though it would be a useful exercise to formalise some of those thoughts, opinions and ideas.
I don’t intend to spend a long time explaining the history of rugby league in London or specifically that of Harlequins RL (see here and here) as that’s not the intention of this exercise. It will however be necessary to refer to them as I go along. The main thing to understand is that building a successful rugby league club has been an arduous challenge, one that sees some fans thankful simply for continued existence.
Over a series of posts I will be discussing the challenges facing the club as it attempts to make good on the Super League license it has been awarded for the next three years. The club must build up its supporter base and it must develop potential investors and sponsors if it is to stand any chance of progressing both on and off the field. In previous posts on the subject of rugby league I’ve explained why I believe expansion is crucial if rugby league is to compete in the market for professional sports; and a successful club in the nation’s capital is a major part of it.
The failure of several traditional northern clubs to gain Super League licenses has only fuelled the long standing bitterness of the “flatcappers”, the parochial tendency of rugby league support, who hanker after a long-gone era of semi-professional rugby league played between teams from the “heartland areas” of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria. The commercial and economic realities of professional rugby league bypass the flatcappers and their cheerleaders; but as long as a London based Super League club struggles to build and consolidate its supporter base they will have legitimate ammunition against expansion to bolster the many bizarre conspiracy theories and delusions they cling to in mitigation of their own failings.
I realise that not everyone who passes through this blog has an interest in rugby league, in fact most probably don’t, but I’d be interested to hear any (sensible) comments as I go along, as the perspectives of non-fans are arguably more important in this debate than die-hards such as myself.
By The Mighty Quin | April 26, 2008
No not the Quins RL players but the referee and his assistants who completely cocked up a number of decissions that really affected the game tonight, if we are going to pay out huge wages for full time pro refs then they need to act like it on (and off) the pitch.
Our merry band managed to miss a knock on by Ryan Atkins for the first Wakefield try that you could see from the back of the stands, that was followed trys ruled out for a supposed obstruction that should have gone to the video ref, the Wakefield players had stopped playing and weren’t within spitting distance of getting hold of Chad Randell, and a forward pass that that was another figment of Mr Gansons imagination. Add to that the punch by Bibey that should have seen the red card rather than on report that it got and Howells treatment when he was committed to a charge down id farcical.
I can take getting beat by a better side, a more enthusiastic side but when key moments are blatantly missed by the men in the middle it is hard to swallow.
By The Mighty Quin | April 22, 2008
Yep Rugby Leagues very own Oliver and Hardy make another TV appearance in our game on Saturday, Steve Ganson will be the bloke in the middle and Ashley Klein the over worked video ref.
We won’t remind readers of all the screw ups this pair have made but lets just say neither could spot and offside of their lives depended on it, lets just hope they don’t make another fine mess…
Maybe now is the chance to push our new T-Shirt available in our store, inspired by the Loyal and Loud’s verdict of Mr Silverwood’s performance on Saturday…