Fanfare ahead of Harlequins trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to face Saracens

Rugby union’s revival: Premiership attendance breaks competition record

The 2023-24 season of Premiership Rugby had the highest average match attendance since the competition’s inception in 1987.

After a packed-out Twickenham Stadium witnessed Northampton Saints’ thrilling 25-21 victory over Bath, the average match attendance of 15,379 toppled the previous record set in 2016-17.

This comes just one season on from one of the most challenging periods in the sport’s national history, following the liquidation of three top-flight sides and ever-growing concerns surrounding player welfare.

Premiership Rugby attendances are now above the pre-pandemic highs of 2016-2019

Jonny Fordham, Head of Communications at Premiership Rugby said: “The competitiveness and tightness was definitely a factor in the increased attendances seen this season.

“We’ve just had the fifth different winner in five seasons, remarkable when you look at other sports where the same teams seem to dominate, which keeps it fresh and exciting for supporters.”

From the 1997/98 Premiership Rugby season (where crowd figures were first officially recorded), the competition saw an almost yearly increase in attendances into the start of the new millennia up until the 2009/10 season, which saw average crowds exceed 14,000 for the first time.

Following a peak in the 2016/17 season, attendances struggled to exceed the previous record of 15,065, and attendances have struggled to fully recover from the financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three Premiership clubs entered administration and were expelled from England’s top-flight between 2021 and 2023 – Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish – also joined by the second-tier’s Jersey Bulls.

Change was needed and Fordham outlined key marketing strategies that needed reform going into the 2023/24 season, including what he described as the shape of the season.

He said: “It is our role to paint a defined shape to the season through communications and marketing.

“The fast start building up into Derby Weekend, then the big festive fixtures period that broke attendance records, ensuring that all sides had one home tie each over the period.

“Then from Round 13 onwards, we marketed ‘The Run-in’ as the season-defining period where there was jeopardy everywhere leading into the play-offs and final.”

He also explained that improving the matchday experience for fans was a big influence in the season’s success.

He added: “All clubs are working hard to continue to improve in this space but as things stand a day out at a Premiership Rugby match is a great experience.”

No Premiership side achieved a higher year-on-year attendance increase than Harlequins, who by selling out all bar three home games, and the introduction of a second seasonal fixture at Twickenham Stadium, have seen a seasonal average attendance growth of 27.7%, almost double that of the second highest club Saracens.

Adrian Wells, Chief Marketing Officer at Harlequins said: “When I joined the club weren’t selling out matches and the product on the pitch wasn’t the greatest, so I think the fans would vote with their feet.

“What’s happened in the last year is a definition of a really clear culture around the club, both on the pitch and what we deliver around matchdays, with significant investment around the ground to make supporters’ matchday experience really strong with new screens, a new sound system, pre-match entertainment and show, pyrotechnics and more which guarantees a great day out no matter what happens on field.

“I think it’s really encouraging and it’s great to see the sport growing and some of the clubs now filling the stands regularly.”

It suggests the clubs are making a conscious effort to reconnect with fans, who have felt neglected over the past few years, and left in uncertainty surrounding the sport’s future.

One Harlequins season ticket holder of five years said: “When I first started coming to the Stoop the atmosphere was always really good, I loved it.

“Definitely since COVID there’s been a drop and you can tell that’s been felt across the country, the growing disconnect.

“One of my best mates was a London Irish fan and he’s been left in the dark with no one to support.

“It seems like the RFU and Gallagher Premiership have started to put fans first again, and I get that the clubs don’t have the financial security of football for example, but it’s important that these guys start to look forward to rebuild finances, and fan engagement, before anyone else got affected.”

It is clear that Premiership Rugby has overseen a revival in its most recent rendition, led largely by a conscious effort to reimagine the rugby experience for fans.

The upcoming league rebrand in 2024/25, with previously expelled clubs set to return, looks like it will signify a new dawn for rugby, and a new future.

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