With a number of rugby teams around the globe currently struggling to overcome poor attendance figures I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the distribution of rugby clubs around the World and how this might impact on attendances. Below I have mapped out the top tier rugby teams in each major rugby competition along with the location of their home union.
*Image courtesy of Rugger Blogger
As is blatantly obvious from the above chart there is, and always has been a clear rugby dominance in the South of the country. The disparity of clubs has become so apparent that there are now only two Premiership sides (Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons) in the North of the country.
As you can see below though, the high concentration of clubs in the South does not seem to have impacted on attendances. In fact the two teams in the North have the lowest attendances in the league despite Sale Sharks in particular having a relatively strong season. In fact Sale have just a third of the attendance of London Irish so far this season despite sitting three places higher than them in the league.
There are obviously a number of factors at play here such as the abundance of top flight football teams in the North (the North West in particular) as well as economic disparities between the North and South (see below). Unfortunately the RFU appear to have no desire to help develop rugby in the North as shown by the concentration of World Cup games in the South of the country (there is only one game during the whole tournament being held in the North West).
There is also an obvious North/South divide in the French Top 14, although the key difference here is that the majority of top flight clubs are at the opposite end of the country to the capital. Despite this Southern bias the French national side play the majority of their games in Paris, although they are more flexible than the RFU.
Despite teams from the North having a good historical record of winning the French Championship you have to go back to 2007 for the last time a club from the North of the country (Stade Français) won the league title. Since then the Southern teams have begun to assert their dominance on the league with Toulouse steaming ahead with 17 titles to their name.
Rugby in Wales is completely dominated in the South of the country with less than 70 miles separating the two furthest out regions (Scarlets and Newport-Gwent Dragons). Although the attendance figures of the top performing regions sees them competing with the mid-lower Premiership sides, the likes of the Dragons would struggle to compete with even the lowest Premiership attendances.
*Stats courtesy of Wales Online
These attendance figures are obviously becoming a big concern for the heads of the regions as they seem to be getting worse rather than better. This is obviously a major concern but is it any wonder the gates are suffering so badly when all of the top tier rugby in the country is concentrated within such a small area. Although it may be unpopular short-term now seems like the right time to be looking at establishing a region further North in the country where there is still a substantial demand for top level rugby.
The Irish provinces have one of the best spreads of all the areas I have looked at with clubs evenly distributed across the country. This is also reflected in the provinces average attendance figures with the top 3 Irish sides recording the highest average attendance figures in the league. Although Munster did see a slight dip in attendance figures last term, the other Irish sides saw notable increases in their averages.
*Data courtesy of The Score
Despite previously having a rich heritage of top tier rugby teams (in particular around the borders area), elite level Scottish rugby is now confined to just the two major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. This results in rugby being concentrated in areas who are already served by top level football clubs whilst large parts of the country (in particular the North) are largely excluded from the professional game.
This poor distribution of clubs across the country is reflected in the two Scottish clubs ranking 9th and 10th respectively in attendance figures as can be seen in the image above. Now obviously Scotland is a small country and therefore may struggle to retain more than two professional sides but you can’t help but feel that by distributing them a little better they may be able to help spread the game and increase attendances.
As the newest rugby nation in this list it is no wonder that rugby is so concentrated within Italy. The clubs are clearly focussed on the North of the country where rugby is much more popular than in the less affluent south. Despite this the majority of the Italian national sides games are played in Rome somewhere nearer the middle of Italy, although this is not always the case.
The bulk of the South African Super XV sides remain around the North East if the country with just the Stormers representing a South-Western outpost in Cape Town. The map below shows a reverse trend of top tire rugby sides being primarily focussed in regions with higher poverty levels unlike in the European countries.
The reason for this however is somewhat clearer when looking at the below chart that shows that rugby is focussed in areas where the white population is largest in the country. Despite this however strides are being made in helping to ensure rugby is breaking down social barriers and becomes a more inclusive sport throughout the country, although it is always going to be difficult moving rugby outside of its traditional strongholds.
Much like in England, Australian top level rugby is largely dominated by the South-East of the country. Unlike in England however the Wallabies do play in a number of stadia to ensure the whole country has a greater opportunity to watch their national side play. This despite suffering from many of the same issues as English rugby, primarily the dominance of other sports in the country (rugby league and Aussie rules in this instance).
Much like in the other countries analysed the bulk of top-level Australian rugby is concentrated in areas with the largest wealth such as the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. In 2006 the ARU even established the Western Force in Western Australia which is the second wealthiest region of the country thereby further cementing rugby as a game for the rich.
New Zealand probably represents the most even distribution of top tier rugby clubs of all of the countries analysed, although their Super Rugby franchises do tend to be based around the more wealthy areas of the country once again. The All Blacks do however play in a variety of venues across the country thereby ensuring they are relatively accessible for all fans.
The chart below shows that on average the South African sides enjoy the greatest attendances of the Super Rugby countries with the kiwi franchises with all 5 of their sides appearing in the bottom 8. This is likely to be primarily down to population sizes although the teams from New Zealand do not suffer from the same competition for fans as the Australian franchises do which may go some way to explaining why the recently established Rebels and Force suffer from the lowest average attendances.
*Data courtesy of GAGR
The South African sides benefit both from a large population size along with a tradition of rugby throughout the country, although there is more competition from football than in New Zealand.
What has become clear from analysing the biggest rugby clubs in the World is that rugby is still primarily dominated by the wealthiest groups in a country and to a large part dictates the location of the top sides. This has led to a number of countries suffering from a rather lop-sided distribution of teams although to a large part this does not seem to have impacted on their attendance figures.
Whilst some national bodies attempt to make the national side as accessible as possible to their nations citizens, some remain resolute in their unwillingness to try to spread the game further afield.
Do you think more needs to be done to ensure rugby is accessible to people from all regions and backgrounds?