It used to sell out in minutes. The pre-event parade stopped the traffic and the post-event carnival would party long into the night. Yet for the third successive year, the Wellington Sevens, despite featuring the likes of Sonny Bill in the run-up to its debut at the Rio Olympics, will fail to play to a full house. And with just 12,000 tickets sold up to this week, even the most optimistic walk-up numbers mean that the Cake Tin will be half full, or rather, half empty. The dire threats issued by the NZRU that unthinkably, Wellington could lose its premier sporting event, if not the major event in the city (apologies to WoW and the festival), look ominously close to being reality. How on earth has it come to this?
Scarily, the organisers seem unsure themselves, and have resorted to reeling off the list of changes to the event which they hoped would turn fortunes around. Sport pundits, bloggers and attendees have been quick to offer reasons and suggestions on social media: tickets too expensive, too many drunks, police too heavy handed with drunks, crap choice of food etc. The problem is that the WRU’s changes have gone a long way to addressing these without any discernible pick-up in sales. Ticket prices have been slashed and there are great rates for kids and those only wishing to attend on one day. Efforts have been made to accommodate families, and stadium food and drink has come on leaps and bounds from the days when it was just Tui, Export Gold, warm chardonnay and cold hot dogs.
Sadly, I think the two conflicting views are both missing the point. The rugbyhead wowsers maintain that in recent years boozy antics had got out of control compared to the early years. However, when I first moved to Wellington over ten years ago, I attended the Sevens and could hardly have described the crowd as a paragon of sobriety. Nor was it unpleasant bedlam either. Police have tended to overreact to what is a very small minority of trouble makers: there were 9 arrests last year out of 30,000 attendees – barely worse than a typical Saturday night down Courtenay Place, I’d guess.
Ticket prices are a function of demand, for sure, but if a drastic reduction still has no effect on improving sales, then evidently a significant group of people who used to go simply no longer wish to. And that brings me to the real, economic reason why the Sevens has struggled: the Auckland Nines. An event that sells out in minutes every year for 13 years, and is the only event of its kind in the country, suddenly struggles the minute a rival event is launched in a larger population hub. It’s obvious. And it’s one of business’s oldest canons: if you go from selling a product easily to struggling heavily, despite cutting prices, you have a competitor, plain and simple.
This idea has been dismissed by those who think that because the Nines is League and the Sevens is Rugby, they will appeal to different crowds. This forgets the classic Sevens maxim that the rugby was only ever a part of the appeal. And this is why stepping up the police intervention and trying to make the event “all about the rugby” this year has doomed sales to fall even further. In its heyday, less than half of tickets were sold to Wellingtonians anyway. I vividly remember irate locals who had missed out on tickets whinging about scalpers and asking for a greater portion of tickets to be reserved for Wellington fans.
And where did most of the out-of-towners come from? Auckland, of course. The one place with a sufficiently larger population, who lacked any alternative local event, and who could get cheap flights provided they were booked in advance. Each year, the Dominion Post would indulge its little brother inferiority complex and interview a Jafa or two, who would politely reassure the interviewer that they just loved coming down to windy old Welly for the Sevens.
Not any more. I suspect the organisers and the council are fully aware of this, hence the move to a Sat-Sun event (no need for attendees to fly home on the Sunday now). The promotion of the event has had a markedly more local feel. And yet if the stadium ends up just about half full, which it might, it will be as popular as ever with locals, who only ever made up about 50% of the crowd anyway. The glaring truth is not that Wellingtonians have fallen out of love with the Sevens in a signficant way, it is that New Zealand cannot sustain two sell-out sporting events of this nature within weeks of each other during the summer. And the one in the city three times the size will naturally do better.
Depressingly, moving the event will only make things worse. There are only two serious contenders: Auckland and Dunedin. Christchurch is a long way from being ready for such an undertaking and Hamilton has never really expressed any genuine interest. Dunedin has a fabulous venue, but with a catchment area of 120-150,000 people (about a third the size of Greater Wellington), it would surely struggle to sell out a capacity the same as the Cake Tin. And cheap flights to Dunedin from other centres are harder to come by. The most pressing problem, though, is that the Sevens calendar as it stands would mean that the event would be outside of term time – idiotic, as anyone who has watched the tumbleweed blow through the Octagon when the students are away will know.
If it goes to Auckland it will simply cannibalise the existing support for the Nines, an event whose own sales have tailed off a little after the first year sellout. You would be left with a half full Eden Park on consecutive weekends. Auckland may well have 1.4m potential customers, but its sheer size has meant that crowd attendances have often been disappointing, and Eden Park remains a pain to get to unless you are close to a connected train line.
Combined with a severe dip in form of the NZ Sevens team, the timing of this couldn’t be worse, and there is a cruel irony that after dominating a sport when no-one really cared, New Zealand is in danger of losing its place at the Sevens table on and off the field, just as the sport is catapulted to global success by the Rio Olympics. Give it a go, aye, and would the cops please think about only evicting people who are, y’ know, genuinely causing trouble?