While the Aviva Premiership flourishes, the once mighty Top 14 is losing its appeal among French fans for myriad reasons. Can it regain its mojo?
Last week two sets of figures were published. On Wednesday the Aviva Premiership disclosed that attendances are up 10.1% this season with the average gate an impressive 13,833. Two days later Midi Olympique revealed that Top 14 attendances in the first half of the 2016-17 season are down 8.8%, and that for the first time since 2010 the average crowd has dipped below 13,000 and now stands at 12,824. It’s a similar story in the ProD2 with attendances 3% down on the previous season.
Of the fourteen clubs in the top flight of French rugby, only Clermont and La Rochelle have seen their average crowds rise this season, the latter from 14,821 to 15,000 and Clermont’s from 17,048 to 17,684.
Among the clubs who have experienced an alarming drop in gates are Toulouse (a 5.8% decline) and reigning Top 14 champions, Racing 92, whose average crowd this season is 8,863, a drop of 12.8% on last season. But that’s still small compared to neighbours Stade Francais, whose average gate is 9,321, 22% lower than last season.
So what’s behind the dramatic slump in attendances? There’s no doubt two years of terrorist outrages have had an effect on crowd numbers, particularly in Paris, which has experienced two mass-casualty attacks.
In 2014-15 the average gate for a Top 14 match was 13,754, and now two seasons later it’s down to 12,824. It’s not just that some people might be frightened of going to sporting occasions in the wake of what happened at the Stade de France in November 2015, but it’s also the rigmarole involved in attending a match
It’s entirely understandable that tight security is now a feature of any sporting event in France but at the same time it’s an inconvenience; a minor one, but enough perhaps, to put off the odd person who doesn’t fancy standing in a queue for 15 minutes to be frisked when they could watch it on the telly.
Yet that doesn’t explain why attendances for Ligue 1, the first division of football in France, have experienced a much smaller drop in the past 12 months, just 2.47%, especially given that last season Paris Saint-Germain were so dominant that they won the title at the beginning of March, two months before the last round of matches.
Similarly, the fact that football crowds have remained relatively stable suggests France’s ailing economy isn’t much of a factor in rugby’s diminishing attendances. Top 14 clubs price their tickets reasonably (between 15-20 euros is the norm for an adult ticket) and that has barely increased in the last few seasons.
Let’s be honest, the primary reason Top 14 crowds are on the wane is because the rugby’s just not that exciting. There have been a handful of excellent matches this season – Stade Francais’s 30-all draw against Clermont in September was one of the best games I’ve seen live in a while – but at the same time I’ve witnessed some dross. Lyon against Toulon, for example, a game littered with errors, or Toulon’s 28-6 win over a tediously one-dimensional Montpellier at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille
On that occasion I was sitting behind a young boy and his mother. Eavesdropping on their conversation it was evident the pair were new to rugby matches, but the boy was clearly a huge Toulon fan. But long before the match finished his attention had waned. Like many, reset scrums and aimless kicks weren’t his idea of a fun Sunday afternoon.
By contrast, the Aviva Premiership is in general more entertaining than the Top 14. Why? For a start the English clubs aren’t playing for their financial survival in the way the Top 14 clubs are; only one club is relegated in the Premiership, but in France it’s two and that creates a risk-averse rugby for half a dozen clubs from the autumn onwards. Win at all costs becomes the coaches’ mantra and the thought of playing an ambitious and expansive game goes out the window.
From next season onwards only one club will be automatically relegated (the club finishing second from bottom will play the runner-up in the ProD2 in a play-off with the winner taking their place in the Top 14 the following season) so that should ease a little of the pressure.
The Premiership is also faster and more skilful than the Top 14 with every player an athlete. The same can’t be said of the Top 14 where packs are bigger, slower and less skilful.
The referees don’t help either in France with officials less empathetic than their English counterparts, not just with the players but also the public. The first-half of the Stade Francais v Montpellier match in November lasted 49 minutes, not because of injury but because the referee was so pedantic, lecturing the forwards at every scrum and holding up play to the palpable frustration of the players and the fans.
“Get on with the game, monsieur!” someone cried in desperation. Oh, all right, I confess, it was me.
I haven’t been back to watch Stade Francais since, and it appears I’m not the only one.