A game played by gentlemen, but not for the fans

“Number 17, Manchester City will play number 32, Manchester United.  That concludes the draw for the fourth round of the Carling Cup.  Games will be played in week beginning 3rd December 2012 in The Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi.”

Far fetched?  Not as much as you may believe.  We have seen a growing trend of American sports playing regular season games over here in London in the past few years, with NFL being a regular fixture every Autumn at Wembley Stadium and in March the first NBA regular season games taking place at The O2 Arena.  But next weekend potentially the first step towards a trend of taking our regular season sport abroad takes place.  A step that will almost certainly lead to our beautiful game being prostituted overseas.

Rugby was once seen as the game that had its house in order.  Clubs seemed to be well managed and publicity stunts were kept on the pitch with the likes of music are scores, remote controlled cars bringing on kicking tees and games not being changed for TV.  Then things started to change.  Clubs started switching games to “neutral” venues for the sole purpose of selling more tickets – nothing wrong with that you may say, but would football fans ever tolerate games such as QPR playing Leicester City at Coventry’s Ricoh Arena simply so that the away team could bring in more fans, or stomaching an increase in season ticket prices from £99 to £300 in 3 seasons?

Very few teams sell out each week.  Leicester Tigers have consistently played in front of near sell outs for years, as too in recent years have Northampton Saints.  But most others sometimes can fill less than 60%.  Quite how the logic works of Saracens for instance moving some games ten miles down the M1 from Watford, where they get 10,000 if they are lucky, to the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium is a mystery, unless you take the financial view.

Rugby clubs have to work within a salary cap, and here is the big issue.  If you spend big on salaries then you need to balance your books.  If you cannot increase the number of seats in your ground you have two options – move to somewhere with more seats, or increase prices.  However, there is a third option that has just raised its ugly head.

Adams Park - not a Sheik in sight

On Sunday 30th January 2011 at 3.15pm GMT London Wasps will take on their biggest rivals Harlequins in the LV=Cup, the rugby union equivalent of the league cup.  Wasps ground share with Wycombe Wanderers at Adams Park but this game is not being played in rural Buckinghamshire.  Instead it is being played 3,427 miles away in Abu Dhabi, the second largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Why? (that was a rhetorical why by the way)

The game is being staged at the Emirates Palace Stadium.  Heard of that one?  No, probably not, and the reason why is that the 5,000 capacity stadium has been built in the luxurious Kempinski Emirates Palace Hotel just for this game and will be deconstructed the day after the match.  Hundreds of football clubs in England would die for a new ground yet in the middle east they are prepared to sink millions into building a ground just for an 80 minute game of rugby.  Just 72 hours before the game was due to take place, the ground was still being built! (See here for picture)

“This unique opportunity to take the LV= Cup tournament global follows a visit to the region by Club Owner Steve Hayes and Board Director Lawrence Dallaglio late last year. The Wasps pair journeyed to Abu Dhabi as part of their ongoing efforts to research stadium development whilst the club continues to pursue their ambitions for a new long term home for London Wasps.” Quoted the Wasps website on the 5th January 2011.  How on earth is a visit to the Middle East going to help them find a new ground exactly? Or even find more supporters to watch the club back in rural Buckinghamshire?

Now call me an old skeptic but should we look any further than the club sponsors of opponents Harlequins for one of the reasons for the “unusual” venues?  Etihad Airways, the official airline of the United Arab Emirates and part owned/funded by the ruling family of the state.  And of course also sponsors of Manchester City.  Not that rugby is alone in being tempted to the oil and cash rich state.  Formula One made its debut there in 2009 and is now firmly on the race calendar, with spectator tickets costing upwards of The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi cost $22 million to build and is arguably one of the world’s finest cricket grounds. It was opened in May 2004 and has since hosted a number of international matches, and is a favoured venue for our county teams to hold pre-season games.

Sky Sports will show the Wasps v Quins game live but is that good enough for the thousands of Wasps season ticket holders who will not be able to attend the game.  Wasps have said that the tickets for the game are valid, you just need to get on an (Etihad) flight to the game, which are currently selling at a snip at £1,200 for a two night return – i,e about the cost of two top price season tickets.  “Season Ticket Holders, and supporters who have already purchased tickets, that do not travel will be offered a refund for the pro-rated value of this match and will also be invited to attend an exclusive open day with the squad at Adams Park later in the season” Hmmm…hardly a good trade?

It is amazing that the rugby authorities think that announcing such a game with just under 4 weeks notice to fans is seen as acceptable. Having spoken to a number of staunch rugby fans in the past week I was met with unbelievable stares when I told them of this game, with not one person being able to tell me how it helped the game in England.  Despite gaining few fans, the RFU are fully behind the game.  “We are delighted to be working with LV=, London Wasps, Harlequins and the United Arab Emirates Rugby Association on this venture, which is the first of its kind in the competition’s history. Taking the game to Abu Dhabi is a great opportunity to strengthen the sport’s presence outside of the eight foundation unions” So how would they feel if all Premiership clubs decided to move games abroad?

There is a constant drive in rugby to “push the boundaries”.  More and more games are being moved to bigger stadiums.  The trend started with the London Double Header, a curtain raiser to the new season at Twickenham which is now nearing its tenth year.  Then we saw more clubs move the odd game or two to Twickenham, and last season Saracens tested the water with a game at Wembley Stadium.  This season Wasps will play two games regular season games at Twickenham, and one at Wembley.

Wasps, who seem to be keen to put as much pressure as possible on the local authorities to allow them to expand Adams Park, have tried playing games in locations such as Coventry in the past, as well as three games a season at Twickenham.  But is this a step too far?  Abu Dhabi is hardly the hot bed of rugby is it?  And who exactly will be “in the grounds of the luxurious Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, managed by Kempinski Hotels, with a specially constructed stadium allowing up to 5,000 spectators to enjoy the fixture. The Emirates Palace will also host both teams and the match officials” ?

Bear in mind that the first England training camp starts this week and so no Internationals will be available anyway.  So essentially you will have weakened teams playing in a Legoland stadium on the other side of the equator.  Imagine Arsenal v Chelsea in the Carling Cup being played on the other side of the world – it wouldn’t happen would it?  Nothing like selling out is there?

1 Comment

  1. The ball is Oval in this piece.

    The ambition of the NFL is to bring more games to London. One UK writer suggested that they bring the NFL superbowl to the UK to really grab the attention of the British public. In other words massive games and tournaments push the boundaries and grow the game. Rugby world cup. Qatar football world cup (which I’m still not happy about). State francais v toulouse capital of north and south of France coming together in the French national stadium selling out 80k tickets – a record for a club game because it was a new idea.
    So I’m for the experiment abroad but why not take 4 sides, organise cheap flights and accommodation take a few fans and get a few people interested: Kenya or Georgia are growing rugby nations why not look at these countries if even Spain or Portugal!

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