This weekend saw the start of the new Aviva Premiership season, and what a start it was: high-scoring games, incredible comebacks and great performances from the minnows. The media hype around the rugby this weekend paled in comparison to the start of the Barclays Premier League, but nevertheless it was surely the most anticipated start to a rugby season, well, ever?!
Over the last decade, professionalism within rugby has intensified in every facet; from the elite to the grass roots level. However, are these developments a result of nature or nurture? Are these advancements part of the natural progression of any sport or have they been hurried along by the power of media on the back of success and in the fight for attention against other sports?
There is no denying that the media has influenced all sports, football and the Premier League being the prime and obvious example. The media money available has meant other sports, sports that have grown from cultures of tradition and amateurism, are finding new ways to challenge for the number two spot in the popularity rankings.
In my opinion, the sport that is vying for the number two spot most closely with rugby is cricket. The similarities are there to see: both sports have rich histories and loyal fans, both sports have had all-conquering national teams, but both sports are also targeting the same new clientèle.
In the fight for attention rugby and cricket have introduced new formats, created superstars and filled national stadiums for domestic games. They have developed festival-like, family friendly environments to entice more supporters and as a result they have gained more media interest and sold rights for big money. But what is the end goal? Where do they stop?
Surely a sport like rugby or cricket can never reach the popularity of football, but do they want to? What can the governing bodies learn from the growth of football to make the right decisions? How can they ensure the history and the pride of the sport isn’t tarnished and as a result, drive away the loyal fans?
I think the next five to ten years are going to be incredibly important for both sports in their development. The growing game is one that has to be handled carefully: whilst the current supporters are loving the cheap tickets, filled stadiums and greater coverage; they do not want to get to a situation where their beloved sport stars become the untouchables that you see in football. They do not want their sport to be turned into the business that is the Premier League. In the same breath, they can’t afford to lose any of the momentum they have recently gained, and will have to fight off competition from plenty of other sports too.
Watch this space, I guess, but for now – here’s to an awesome Aviva Premiership 2012/2013…COME ON YOU QUINS!