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Challenge Cup semi-finals shouldn’t be at neutral venues…

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Hull KR were hammered by Wigan Warriors in the Challenge Cup semi-final today and whilst tens of thousands will have watched the game at home on TV, a far smaller number watched live in the stadium prompting questions about the validity of neutral venues for cup ties.

Of course, a smaller figure of fans will attend the game than watch at home. That’s obvious, but the attendance of today’s game has prompted plenty of concerns with just 11,193 fans heading to the Eco-Power Stadium in Doncaster to watch the match.

That is actually more than last year’s game between these same two sides at Headingley but considering Wigan average far more than 11,000 themselves and Hull KR have been consistently registering home sellouts at their own stadium of 10,000, the question has to be asked – do neutral venues for Challenge Cup semi-finals have any merit?

Do neutral venues in the Challenge Cup work?

Challenge Cup

Credit: Imago Images

Given that there is such a huge divide in English Rugby League with that divide effectively being the M62, it’s always going to be hard to find a neutral venue that suits both teams.

Last season saw Wigan Warriors and Hull KR do battle at Headingley, a 130-mile round trip for Rovers’ fans and a 120-mile one for Wigan fans. That game only garnered a crowd of 10,926, whilst today’s 11,163 attendance is remarkably similar.

Should two of the game’s best-supported sides be playing for a place in a Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in front of an average of just 11,000 fans?

Questions will also be asked about Doncaster as a venue but Serious About Rugby League have had it previously confirmed that was simply due to Headingley being unavailable, but even if it was available the two-game sample size suggests it’s a less desirable venue.

Empty Seats sell the wrong message

Challenge Cup

Credit: Imago Images

Whilst the size of the crowd is one issue, another is empty seats. The inability to sell out a Challenge Cup semi-final is concerning, particularly when that game might be the only game that a new viewer of the sport might see.

If you were to tell somebody who had never watched rugby league before that a place in the final of the sport’s biggest cup competition was at stake, surely their first question would be ‘Why is the stadium only half-full then?’.

And they’d be right. The limited eyeballs that the sport does get on terrestrial TV need to showcase it at its very best. Those concerns also extend to the Challenge Cup Final with the attendance figure falling shy of 65,000 since 2017. That’s prompted questions about a new home that could be filled.

How to fix the Challenge Cup’s attendance issues?

Craven Park

Credit: Imago Images

Bring back the luck of the draw and remove neutral venues from the Challenge Cup semi-finals. For a Hull KR fan, a trip to Wigan would be double the distance almost but the 1,500 or so faithfully fans that make away trips each week would undoubtedly turn up, and they’d turn up to an event that was close to sold-out or at least surpassing a crowd of 11,000.

On the other hand, if Hull KR had been drawn at home, then they would certainly sell out their stadium and even if it meant fewer than 11,000 fans would be in attendance, a full stadium with the atmosphere of Craven Park would have been better for the sport than a three-quarters full neutral venue.

There will be yet more data tomorrow when Warrington Wolves and Huddersfield Giants do battle at St Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium, however, it has been suggested from early reports that ticket sales for that game have struggled even more than today’s clash.

That could lead to more worrying scenes of empty seats and if the match is as one-sided as today’s then the spectacle itself could be a lacklustre one.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John

    May 18, 2024 at 11:05 pm

    It would be interesting to know how many tickets each team sold. From the seating plans when tickets went on sale, assuming the areas where Rovers supporters could not purchase tickets were for Wigan fans, it appeared most of the empty and nearly empty sections where were Wigan fans should have been. Was that the case?

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