Rugby: Crowds can't fall any further - Clark

Roger Clark.
Roger Clark.
The Highlanders met budget for crowds this year but have warned they cannot dip any lower if the franchise is to remain viable.

In the eight games the Highlanders hosted at Forsyth Barr Stadium this year, 98,326 people came through the gate, an average crowd of 12,291 per game.

The match against the Crusaders was far and away the best attendance with a crowd of 21,305, while the matches against two Australian teams, the Rebels and the Force, both attracted fewer than 10,000 fans, the smallest crowds of the season.

A crowd of 11,070 attended the last home game, the win over the Chiefs, a figure that did not exactly delight Highlanders general manager Roger Clark.

''There was a lot on the line last Friday night. Our team had been playing well, it was an important game and we were playing against the defending champions,'' Clark said.

''So I was a bit disappointed in the crowd we got.''

Clark said getting people to the ground to watch was not getting any easier, especially after the three-week international break.

''The test match had just been played here and that takes a lot of money out of the market. It is hard to get everything up and get people re-engaged with Super rugby after a three-week break.

"There had been a lot of footy played and we only have a small population to call on.''

The Highlanders do not have a lot of say on the scheduling of games, but Clark said the Crusaders game, which was played at 5.30pm on a Saturday, had been very popular.

That was not only because it was a local derby but the time made it easier for supporters from outside Dunedin to get to the game.

''We sold about 4000 to 5000 to Cantabrians and then a lot to the likes of people from Queenstown and Invercargill. That is the difference for us between a good crowd and a great crowd.''

He said people could travel to the game and then go home the same night, and many fans preferred Saturday games to Friday games.

Crowds could not dip much more if the franchise was to remain viable, Clark said.

''The crowds this year will be up on last year and that is a real positive for us. But we are at a bare minimum of people coming through the gate to sustain us as a financial entity.''

Crowds had been down right across the five New Zealand franchises but that was a worldwide trend, with fewer people attending events.

Next year was looming as a tough one for scheduling games, with a crowded calendar.

There were the Cricket World Cup, the Fifa Under-20 World Cup and Anzac centenary celebrations to consider, Clark said.

Cricket is not played at Dunedin's roofed stadium but will be played at Eden Park and Westpac Stadium, and that will affect the overall Super rugby fixture list.

If the Highlanders make the playoffs, they may get a financial bonus, but Clark is not considering that yet.

The team had to make the playoffs first before any thought was given to making money out of a playoff game, Clark said.

He also said the franchise would not comment on player signings for next year until this season was finished.

The Highlanders will probably be in the market for a prop, with Chris King moving to France and Argentinian prop Matias Diaz also expected to head to Europe.

The Highlanders have tried to sign a couple of surplus props from Canterbury but are now understood to have contracted Chiefs prop Josh Hohneck for next season.

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