Rugby Union is rapidly entering the 21st Century in a number of aspects, with private equity firm CVC coming on board to modernise commercial deals, particularly when it comes to television, and World Rugby announcing rafts of initiatives designed to improve player safety.
However, one area of the game which is drastically lagging behind at the professional level is the treatment of supporters, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere.
This has been brought sharply into focus over the last week as the wait for Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup pool fixtures continues into a third month, with supporters having completely lost faith in European Professional Club Rugby’s (EPCR) ability to deliver them at all.
The draw for the 2019/20 competition’s pool stages took place on Wednesday 19th June, with Cardiff Blues drawn alongside Leicester Tigers, Pau and Calvisano, and since then it has been a never-ending promise-breaking exercise for EPCR.
Immediately following the draw they published competition details to their website, explaining round dates and structure, with a statement that ‘fixtures would be announced in early August’.
This was succeeded by a tweet in which they stated that fixtures would be out roughly two weeks after the final set of fixtures were announced by the three European professional leagues; English Premiership, French Top14 and the Pro14.
That two weeks started from the 17th July, when the Pro14 announced their fixtures a week earlier than last season, but by the 2nd August, just over two weeks later, there was still stony silence from EPCR’s Swiss headquarters.
Early August also came and went, with EPCR slyly changing the wording of the article on their website from ‘early August’ to simply ‘during August’, without announcing anything.
Then finally the 17th August, when last season’s European pool stage fixtures were announced, slid by with still no sign of any confirmed kick-off times or dates. With the aforementioned fact that the Pro14 announced their fixtures a week earlier this summer, it means that EPCR are, at the time of writing, eight days behind last year’s schedule.
So what have they done to keep supporters informed?
Well, they’ve produced what is quite frankly the worst statement made in professional sport. “A time/date for an announcement will be confirmed shortly.” A non-announcement that an announcement will be made after the undefined period of time known as ‘shortly’.
Essentially what we’ve experienced over the last few weeks is sheer contempt for supporters from an organisation that relies on supporters to drive the competition it runs. Would the big TV money be available for a competition played out in front of empty stands with no atmosphere? Would sponsors come on board if nobody was watching?
The word is that it is issues with broadcasters that are delaying the fixtures being released, but this is EPCR’s competition. If they are letting the broadcasters dictate proceedings to such an extent they should step down from their role as organisers immediately as they are clearly not fit for purpose.
There is also the question of how difficult can it be to organise six rounds of fixtures and ask the TV companies to pick which ones they would like to televise? Surely there are streamlined processes for settling fixture disputes or clashes? It’s not like this is the first time the competition has run.
Also, with the Challenge Cup pool stage largely un-televised, what broadcaster dispute could be impacting the second tier competition? Of course this is a selfish point as a supporter of the team in the Challenge Cup, but why can’t our fixtures be released?
Supporters want to book flights, which get more expensive as time goes on, we want to book hotels, with fewer rooms available as time goes on, and we need to book time off work which gets more difficult as time goes on.
European trips are the peak of our seasons as supporters. Ask any club rugby supporter what their best away trip was and I guarantee the vast majority will reply with a European away game. It means a lot to us, which is why this treatment hurts so badly.
If I performed as poorly as the communications and operations teams at EPCR currently are, I would be searching for a new job, yet the bosses in Switzerland don’t seem to care.
What will open their eyes? A boycott?