Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Does PRO Rugby's Attendance Compare To Other Leagues?

Now with a small sample size, albeit one that only includes four of the five venues in the league, we can begin to look at PRO Rugby's attendance and compare it with other rugby competitions and other U.S. leagues. Overall, PRO Rugby has to be pleased with what they have done. No, the league is not about to crack the Big Five sports leagues but they have a very solid beginning that so far has demonstrated an interest on par with similar competitions.

Through four matches PRO Rugby has had about 10,000 fans attend matches, or an average of 2,500 per match. Sacramento was the highest at 3,400. San Diego was close with about 3,000 followed by Denver with 2,300 albeit in a major snowstorm. Without the snow they also probably would have reached the 3,000 range. San Francisco game up the lowest with 1,700 but that was expected. It's been easier to get local media coverage in the other markets and harder in San Francisco because it is so big. It should also be mentioned that these are home and league openers. Attendance is going to wax and wane over the next few months.

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As expected, PRO Rugby is still behind the top European and Southern Hemisphere competitions. Super Rugby, the Premiership and Top 14 are the most well attended of the leagues. The Premiership has roughly 13,500 fans per match with the lowest team averaging around 6,000 and the highest over 20,000. It's almost an identical story in the Top 14. Super Rugby was the highest attended with 19,000 per match. The Pro12 has an average attendance of 7,710 so far this season but that's skewed thanks to Ulster and Leinster drawing 15,000 per match and Munster drawing 12,000. The next closest team is the Ospreys. Benetton Treviso only average 3,110 while Zebre are bringing up the rear at 2,348.

Where things start to get interesting is when you look at the lower leagues. While competitions like the Currie Cup and ITM Cup do well, as does the Pro D2 in France, others don't. For example, the RFU Championship in England only averages roughly 1,900 fans per match. Bristol are easily the highest at 6,500 hundred but then you have two teams average less than a thousand and five more less than 1,500. If you take out Bristol it's about about 1,500 fans per match. It was a similar number in the National Rugby Championship with 1,450 per match. The highest attendance last year in the competition was 4,300 fans and the lowest was 400. The Eccellenza in Italy averages around 1,000 fans per match.

Back here in the United States a look at fellow outdoor, once-a-week sports, gives a good idea was the league stands as well. Last year the USL PRO division averaged 3,222 fans per match. They had some teams with really high attendances, including Sacramento Republic who play out of Bonney field and had 11,000 per match, and then you had lower earners, mostly second sides for MLS teams. Without those teams the attendance would have been higher although it would still be over 3,000. The lowest attended USL Pro team not a direct second side for an MLS team averaged 1,157, something easily PRO Rugby has been able to do. The NASL, a step above USL but below MLS, averaged 6,000 fans per match.

The National Women's Soccer League shows similar numbers. The Portland Thorns ran away with the league attendance with 13,000 while Sky Blue out of New Jersey averaged only 2,268. Most teams had closer to a 3-4,000 average. The league average was 5,000 but that's pulled up by the Thorns. Major League Lacrosse was very similar with 4,700 per match. Denver was the outlier with 10,000 per match and a couple of teams only did a little more than 1,000.

Overall, PRO Rugby has to like where they are sitting. It's still very early and things are going to shake out. One thing to remember is that this is a completely brand new professional sport in the United States. Soccer has been professional for a very long time and even lacrosse has been professional at the indoor level for awhile and an NCAA sport. When teams like Portland, Sacramento, or Denver take off in their respective competitions it's because they've done so with history and with a league in place (each one outside the Thorns who were part of the original league).

With an average of 2,500 to start and likely to grow over the summer with word of mouth, advertising, less snow, etc., PRO Rugby is in a good place to create a niche in the U.S. sports market. There are going to be hits and misses but if they can get a market to take off like what's been done in some other sports they should be sitting well.

Further, they have to be happy where they sit in the rugby landscape. Travel and start up costs means their payrolls are probably less than the RFU Championship but that league also averages less fans. Yes, they do get subsidies from the RFU, but at the same time it comes down to butts in seats and with more butts in seats and in the U.S. market PRO Rugby will be able to grab more sponsors.

There is still a lot to play out. Ohio hasn't even played a home match. Still, if PRO Rugby can keep up this rate the rest of the season and even improve upon it as expected, then it should be enough to see it stick around for awhile.


  1. I think a comparison which also needs to be recognized is the money from TV/sponsors that these other teams/leagues are getting. Those are the revenue streams that will end up needing to be developed after the product is considered viable to help float the league along and let it grow and not just tickets sold.

  2. Interesting things to consider. The locations that were selected seemed to be very strategic with respect to communities willing to pay and support a franchise. If these locations are successful, expansion is inevitable. What other cities would support a team? I have to think a team or two in Texas are good choices. Seattle? Salt Lake? Time will tell...

  3. In combination with viability of cities that can support a team one has to wonder how much thought they are putting into their pool of talent. Is the U.S. elite player pool big enough to support 2 more American teams? 4? Just from my observation is seems like 80-90% of the guys in the league can compete at the desired level (esp with more training) but there are some outlying that could water down the competition back down to higher club level which does not seem to be the intent.