Last week saw what has been universally described and rightly so as one of the greatest rugby tests of all time. This was however a game that emphasized the singular problem facing New Zealand rugby. In short there are two forms of the game that really matter- that of schools and clubs and that of the All Blacks. Super Rugby and ITM are still, in some ways important, but struggle to maintain meaning for most New Zealanders across what is an incredibly long season.
We have a professional rugby season- that is a season where NZ rugby wants us to pay money to watch rugby- that stretches from late February into October. This is not so much a problem if we consider the audience primarily as a broadcasting one- that is, the supporters now pay money to Sky TV to watch rugby and sky TV in this way funds much of NZ rugby.
In such a scenario games such as the recent All-Blacks -Springboks test are exactly what is needed as they provide a product that everyone wants to see repeated in a format whereby the decision to pay to watch has already been made and all I have to do is sit on the couch and turn on the TV- and I don't now even have to watch it live. I don't have to get up in the middle of the night- I can watch a replay on sky the next morning or evening or i can record it on mysky.
Compare this to going and watching an ITM game live.
After watching the test match replay i then decided to not watch the live Wallabies-Pumas match. Instead I got ready with my daughters to go and watch Canterbury play Counties in the ITM cup as we have season tickets and this was one of the few afternoon games. We already knew that Counties would be fielding a second-string team as, having made the play-offs they were concentrating on the Shield defence coming up.
So, needing to collect others and get a park we - as usual- leave about an hour before the game begins.
We drive and then park, then walk for about 15 minutes or more depending on the crowd, line up and shuffle through the gates.
I might buy a pottle of chips for $4. I won't buy an overpriced tasteless beer or coffee or a minuscule exorbitantly expensive tiny bottle of wine.
We make our way to the seats where we wait while we are blasted by whatever noise the hosting radio station I never listen to attempts to do some pre-match 'entertainment'. At least at the ITM we don't get the cheer-leaders who, i am proud to say, my daughters always boo having been properly taught to identify both sexism in action and kitsch.
But we wait in a half-empty stadium, some come in late in front as the game starts forcing everyone to stand up and we miss bits of the game. The game itself is dreadful in the first half. Canterbury has won 5 previous championships but today they are horrible and sloppy and if i had paid specifically for this game i would have been very upset. Of course the risk in professional sport is you can find yourself paying money to watch a bad performance.
At halftime we need to buy some chips so we go and line up and find some eftpost machines don;t work so have to change ques.
The second half is a much improved effort and is 40 minutes of enjoyment. Then we stand up and make our way slowly out of the stands, and then out of the stadium and along the road back to car. once in the car we make our way out into the traffic and are on our way home.
From leaving home to returning it takes on average 3.5 hours.
I have been doing this, often at night, often in winter, since February...
Increasingly in New Zealand professional rugby is watched in half-empty stadiums as supporters decide that the time involved, rugby played and the surroundings/entertainment/facilities/provision of food and drink are not worth venturing away from home to encounter.
Nine months is a long time to maintain enthusiasm for a variable experience...
If i have some spare time i might turn on the TV and watch a game, but i can eat and drink what i want, when i want, in the warmth and comfort of my home- and then during or after the match i can do what i want when i want. In short the game gets fitted around the rest of my life and that of my family. If i compare most games to what i saw in the All Blacks-Springboks test then they are second-rate at best- and most often meaningless. And that is the problem- for increasing numbers of supporters most rugby- because there is too much of it- has become increasingly meaningless.
I was talking with a fellow rugby-tragic who has season tickets next to me. He commented that he now never watches most rugby on TV as it has become a low-quality meaningless extended blur. And yet also the ritual of coming to the rugby, to live rugby, over 9 months is losing its allure.
Speaking sociologically, we are facing disenchantment. In turning the game professional we have turned it into just another form of entertainment we pay to watch. The exchange has increasingly become drained of sustainable meaning.