How the Currie Cup lost its bite

What was once the premier domestic rugby competition in the world is now barely a blip on the country’s sporting calendar.

A seven-team Currie Cup shuffled into view on 17 August, the same weekend the Rugby Championship began. This was after a raft of other tournaments – the Varsity Cup, Super Rugby, SuperSport Rugby Challenge and PRO14 – had come and gone, making what used to be the country’s premier domestic competition, which used to attract players from across the globe, feel like something of an afterthought. 

How did it fall from its lofty heights? Coach John Dobson, who is in charge of the reigning champions, and marketer Kelvin Watt explain.

The coach: John Dobson (Western Province)
In the past five years, we’ve had five different formats. As the longest-serving Currie Cup coach at the moment, I’ve done four of those, and I’m sure next year we’ll have a different format to make it six in six years. A tournament struggles for integrity if it changes every year. We’re treating it as an afterthought and people are getting that. 

I think this year’s single-round competition has contributed – when you play home and away, you get an equitable finish to the tournament. Now you can draw tough teams away and the weaker sides at home. What makes it feel even more like an afterthought is that in a regular six-game season, we’ve got three bye weeks – you can’t tell a season ticket holder he’s guaranteed only three games in a season. 

Also, the Currie Cup used to be a tournament in which you could develop players to go to the Springboks’ end-of-year tour, but you’ll never be able to do that in six games. For example, we’ve got four good scrum halves in our team, and if we had a double-round competition, we would be able to play all of them. With the single round, teams are under pressure to perform every game, so we’ll have to get rid of that developmental aspect. 

How do we fix it? We have to play home and away in a six-team tournament. Promotion and relegation would also make it good, and if we wanted to make it a powerful competition, we’d make it a qualifier for Super Rugby the following year.

The sports marketer: Kelvin Watt (Nielsen Sport, Africa and Middle East)
If you treat a tournament like a premier competition, it’ll be a premier competition. If you think that commercially it used to be South Africa’s top and most important competition, it’s been treated a bit like a second-class citizen. The Currie Cup is important for the money that goes into the ecosystem of rugby as it is 100% owned by SA Rugby, but it’s been badly treated for a long time and that’s come home to roost. 

We sacrificed a double-round competition for Super Rugby when Super Rugby has never been commercially the most important thing in South African rugby, other than the broadcast rights. How many chances do we have to host a Super Rugby final? With the guarantee to do so every year, the Currie Cup final should be the biggest day on the South African rugby calendar. 

We’ve destroyed other streams of revenue by paying too much attention to Super Rugby. How many season tickets do you think the provincial unions had in 2010 versus today? It’s probably 20% to 30% of what it used to be eight years ago, which means they’ve lost 70% revenue in season tickets. So the Currie Cup now has no value for the suite owner, which extends to beverage sales, sponsorship, stadium advertising – a lot of money has been lost. 

The Currie Cup was the premier domestic competition in the world. We’ve destroyed something we own 100% for a competition in which we own one-third … There are too many people in rugby with a myopic view. They don’t understand their business – they think they’re in rugby, but they’re in entertainment. They make decisions based on the provincial unions and not South African rugby. 

How do they fix it? They must start from scratch again with a competition of six to eight teams, when all the Springboks are back, and put more money behind it. Promotion and relegation would be good because fans like it.

Why do you think football around the world works? They don’t mess with their leagues, so [Kaizer] Chiefs and [Orlando] Pirates and Manchester United can all be relegated every season. Not one decision made about the Currie Cup has the fans in mind. To build something is one thing; destroying it and trying to rebuild it is another.

But I think it’s too far gone. It’s almost as if we’ve done it on purpose and it’s frustrating to see how the Currie Cup has become a nonentity for people.

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