In recent years it has been very well documented that Challenge Cup crowds are dwindling to an unacceptably low level, which has seen much of the magic disappear from the oldest and most prestigious competition in world rugby league.
It’s clear we need a rethink to get supporters fully engaged. For many years we have been fed lines about how Australian fathers would get their sons up in the early hours of the morning to watch the Challenge Cup. Some of the world’s greatest players such as Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Andrew Ettingshausen, Wally Lewis, James Leuluai and innumerable others have moved to the other side of the world just to play in the competition. It was the pinnacle of the sport, played in front of packed crowds from round one through to the final at Wembley.
Things have changed a lot since then. The Challenge Cup is now treated like a second-rate competition compared to Super League. A team’s previous league season can also have an impact on their Challenge Cup chances, because if a team finishes in Super League’s top eight, they come into the tournament a round later. Now this in itself is ridiculous, not to mention the fact these teams only have to win three games to get to the final. There is a problem that’s bigger than both of these though and that’s the diminishing round-by-round attendances every year.
Before rugby league went into lockdown, I was at the fifth round clash between Hull Kingston Rovers and Leigh Centurions. This was a real throwback to a bygone era and I defy anybody to try and tell any of the 34 players on show at Craven Park that day that this competition doesn’t matter. In what was a frenetic contest between two committed teams, it just felt like that little bit more was on the line because if a tackle gets missed, if that pass doesn’t stick or if that try isn’t converted, then that could signal the end of the Wembley dream for another year.
In the end, Hull KR just about prevailed, with a winning try with just 14 seconds left on the clock. There was a huge outpouring of relief from home fans and a crestfallen look on all the Centurions coaching staff. But, the most telling statistic for me that afternoon was the attendance. Only 2,620 people were in the crowd for this excellent piece of rugby league drama, which had everybody present on the edge of their seats, biting their fingernails down to their elbows. It had everything that makes the Challenge Cup so great, but there was hardly anyone there to see it.
Speaking to some of Rovers matchday staff afterwards, they said if it was a Super League game, with season pass members, there then the crowd would’ve been bigger. Well, a lot bigger, some 5,000 more than the paltry crowd that decided to pay the extra to watch a game that didn’t count on their season ticket. Hull KR still had to pay for their stewards, car park attendants, bar staff, caterers, turnstile operators, cleaners and various other staff that day, people who would have had to come in for an extra day’s work they knew nothing about until the draw was made. Now I’m not up with the financial side of the game but I can’t imagine this was the most lucrative day in the Robins history, especially when the tickets were at a reduced price.
So, what if Challenge Cup games actually counted on a season ticket at a slight extra cost? At present, Super League teams can only be drawn at home a maximum of three times in the Challenge Cup, or if they’re a more successful side from the previous season, a maximum of twice. From those matches combined they will probably get a similar number as they would get for ONE Super League game. So why not give the game away, get a full house, a better atmosphere and earn more through fans buying food, drink, programmes and various other extras like, for instance, half-time draw tickets etc. This would help restore some of the magic we have lost from the Challenge Cup, because, without fans there, what is the point?
With the Challenge Cup on free-to-air television, it is perhaps the rugby league competition most in the public eye. Yes, we’re asking fans to take a punt on their team getting one, or a few cup games at home in the cost of their season pass, much like in the playoffs previously, but I can’t see many fans, if any, turning their noses up at that. This would be for Super League clubs only because, as we have seen with the recent sixth round draw, lower league sides can land a huge money-spinning home game which can really profit the club financially in a big one-off pay day. For Super League season ticket holders, yes they get priority for the semi-finals and the final, but if you allow them to attend the earlier games, it creates a wider interest, which of course peaks at the final. If this change was made, we would see far fewer empty seats, a more attractive spectacle on TV and the Challenge Cup return to some of its former glory.