Few things get the Dr’s heart pumping faster than a heaving rugby league crowd. The swearing, the grannies knitting beanies (then swearing), the pungent and ubiquitous odour de body, the cramped seats and referee abuse (while swearing) all coalesce to form what is known as ‘atmosphere’.
A cursory look into the coaches’ boxes reveals a microcosm of the humanity outside. It really doesn’t get much better.
Actually, it could be better. The crowds could be larger, even though they are over 5% higher this year on a ‘like’ basis. The dull drone of an 8,000 strong crowd is hardly captivating, and usually ends in the Dr maniacally signing a handful of prescriptions – for himself. But 20,000 plus screaming souls, and now you’re getting a buzz!
Last week’s lament that blockbuster matches were set to fall disappointingly short of expectations (and lived up to them) was followed by Rabbitohs CEO Shane Richardson suggesting the NRL take the AFL approach of making bums on seats a KPI (Key performance Indicator).
The NRL has been painfully slow to recognise the virtues of other codes, especially AFL. And this is a shame, really. Incorporating the best rules from other sports (where applicable) is the key to the expansion of the game. It is smart and it is proactive, and would prove that if a chook raffle needed organising at any point, someone within the bowels of the NRL could be reliably called upon to run it.
Yet, Richardson is absolutely correct in stating that rugby league crowds need to improve in order to sustain the game. How can this be done?
The dynamic duo of crowds and cash
US Major League baseball, beginning with the San Francisco Giants in 2009, has been using a dynamic ticket-pricing system akin to those used in airlines in order to attract more spectators to each game, and to improve revenue flow. The idea is a simple one: price stadium tickets according to the actual demand for them. It is a model that the NRL could explore as a general guideline.
As the Harvard Business Review points out, 17 out of the 30 US Major League baseball teams priced entry tickets in this way as of last year, and more will do so this year. Maybe even the Yankees will get there one day, considering other organisations such as the New York Opera, amongst others, use this method now.
Contrary to pricing aircraft tickets, where fares tend to increase closer to flight time, and upon which the system is based, the process should (generally) work toward lower prices as in some areas of the stadium as the game approaches. This occurs because stadiums are usually at less than full capacity. It makes perfect sense because selling a ticket for any price beats not selling one at all, but if you want to get all nerdy, go ahead and cosy up to the academic research.
But did it work? And can it work in the NRL?
Baseball franchises have reported improving revenues from pricing in this way, which was actually their primary objective. Premium prices actually went up for the marquee match-ups. The follow-on benefit to the fans was participating in a larger crowd at a lower price.
Now, the NRL clearly plays nowhere near the 162 games the baseball franchises do in a season, and games are scheduled around the more spectator-friendly weekends. This in itself reduces the swings in demand for tickets which may make dynamic pricing a sub-optimal strategy. However, the usual factors still apply: who is the opposition; what’s the weather like; how’s my team doing; is it a day or night match; is it a Monday night? And so on.
And I think it’s fair to say that the average working-class NRL supporter would bristle at the idea that some prices might go up.
The season ticket holder would also think twice were some Johnny-come-lately blow-in to sit next to him for half price. The system as it stands takes account of ‘like’ seats, and doesn’t price below the season ticket holders in their area (otherwise why bother?). Any sporting team needs to make money to survive, but they also need to take care in engaging fans, not alienating them.
Imagine the SFS, the best viewing stadium the game possesses, hosting one of its home teams vs a relatively unsuccessful out-of-towner. Wouldn’t all involved, from team management right down to the players, prefer a crowd of 20,000 (plus) rather than 12,000 in a 40,000-capacity venue? Would that not provide a more memorable and uplifting experience?
Perusing pricing for the Rooster / Panthers match as a neat example of a likely modest crowd, it’s pretty clear there are only 3 tiers (also called variable pricing) – Premium ($45 for an adult) and Standard Reserved ($33) or General Admission ($25). Whatever the stadium wants to call the variations of them, these are the 3 tiers available.
For a start, why only 3 tiers? The SF Giants already have dynamic pricing for 20 different seating areas. Surely the NRL can at least vary pricing with a little more imagination, even before considering the benefits, or not, of dynamic pricing?
The rational man (who?!?) would presumably pay more for half-way seats than he would 20-metre line, cascading downward for corners and goalpost areas. Then you have the different levels. There is no reason why there shouldn’t already be 8-10 price variations. I like this as a starting point. It would be nice to see the ends of the fields populated. It will happen at Thursday’s Anzac Day match, but the same can’t be said for the Roosters / Panthers.
Low crowd numbers makes for a rather dull and flat experience. But imagine those less than optimal positions were priced at say, 2/3rds of the General Admission price, or half. What if the General Admission was also lowered another $5? Pretty soon you’re attracting the marginal fan, or the cash-strapped fan, who sees value in making the effort to attend a live sporting event. Before you know it, the lower price (and perhaps even a food voucher attached to it) is more than being offset by crowd numbers. This is the part where everybody wins!
Perhaps the best approach begins and ends with a thorough examination of the permutations of variable pricing, something which is far simpler to implement and model.
It’s food for thought, in any case, and a conversation that needs to happen. There are many corollary issues to bear in mind once embarking down this path, but what the NRL are doing right now (and I’m not sure what that is) is clearly not working to engage fans.
Note to the NRL: I will do this for half the fee you part with to construct the draw