The Waratahs are hoping finals footy and a spark of momentum will lure back fickle Sydney fans and provide a welcome boost to the game's bottom line in NSW.
After a slow start to the season, including a desperately poor turn out of just 10,600 for the Lions match in April, more than 18,500 braved frosty conditions and gusty winds at Allianz Stadium on Saturday to cheer on the Waratahs' record-breaking defeat of the Sunwolves.
Finals-bound: Nad Hanigan crosses in the Waratahs’ record win over the Sunwolves.
With a home quarter-final locked in for next week and a derby clash with the Brumbies on the menu this Saturday, the Waratahs can expect that number to be bettered again, with expectations for this week in the low- to mid-20,000s.
It is a welcome upswing in results and sentiment for the province which, only three years after claiming the Super Rugby title and two years after reach the semi-finals, visited some dark places in 2017.
"First and foremost it gives us feedback that the work we did last year, which included some interventions and some tough conversations, has borne fruit," NSW Rugby boss Andrew Hore said. "At this stage it's too early to say what it will do for the bottom line but success does help and having a quarter-final, it will be interesting to see what type of turn out we get next week.
"It's also too early to say whether it will turn a commercial partner's head, if they happened to be thinking about us in that way. There's always a lag between what happens in a Super season and what happens commercially.
"Right now the organisation is still focused on getting the team to reach its potential, and then from there we want to try to get back some of that feeling, that excitement, that used to exist around the Waratahs."
There's a hard edge to the crowd business that finals footy will also help. Under the Waratahs' hire agreement with the SCG Trust, which provides the organisation with $2 million a year to play all their home games bar a grand final at Allianz Stadium, the team must hit general admission targets to retain all of that revenue. Fairfax Media understands that figure is an average of 10,000 across the season, not including Waratahs members or staff.
In a lean season – the Lions crowd dipped dangerously close to a record low – that is a financial reality the business must stare down. Hore would not confirm the precise crowd figure but said he was hopeful the late-season pick-up would create a buffer to withstand any claw back from the Trust.
"We've still got an average to hit and it's not plain sailing yet but it can all make a difference to reaching that average," he said.
In an effort to share the excitement, NSW Rugby has again gone out to all rugby-playing schools across the state with free tickets, as well as the standing arrangement that every registered junior player in NSW also gets a ticket through their junior Waratahs membership. Despite the timing – the first week of school holidays – NSW Rugby hopes making the fixture country round will also help make oft-neglected members and fans feel welcome.
"The advantage we have as a sport right now – and our competitors in other codes have been doing it for long time – is that we've got capacity, we've got 86,000 participants out there," Hore said.
"When you combine the number of people who turned up from our Sunwolves fixture, the 10,000 who turned up to watch the Shute Shield at the weekend, and 2,000 people who went to our NSW Schools Championships at (St Ignatius) Riverview, you can tell there's a sentiment out there of people wanting to be part of the game in some form. To us that's a sign there's momentum building again and we've got an opportunity to maximise it with gestures like these."
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