1 May 2016

Super League Thursdays

I've wanted to write something about Thursday TV games for a while, but not known what to say. Or, more precisely, how to say what I want to say.

Thursday TV games are great. I love them. If my team are playing it means I get to go see them and then have the full weekend to spend with the wife, keeping her happy. It gives me some quality sport entertainment to watch during the week too - I'm not one for darts and I find it harder and harder to enjoy a football match, so having mid-week Rugby League for me is brilliant. It's something to look forward to watching.

That's the easy bit to say.

The harder bit to say is all you out there that don't like them, that moan about them, just like to use the Thursday thing as an excuse to stay at home and watch the game on the TV and not be there to support your team. There I said it. It feels good to get that off my chest.

I'm not saying there aren't genuine reasons for some people not going to games on Thursdays, just as people have genuine reasons that they can't attend games on any day of the week. Awkward work shifts, trouble getting babysitters, need to attend other functions and events, going on holidays, sickness, affordability. There are loads of acceptable reasons.

Apparently though, only Thursdays are bad. Ruining the game, No good for supporters. No good for families. I can't agree, and I don't really believe most of you lot out there really think that way too.

Fridays tend to have more 'headline' fixtures in the TV spot, but the available Thursday TV viewing figures from 2015 stack up pretty well against them. An overall average of a touch over 110,000 for the regular season Thursday fixtures and a best of 156,000 according to Rugby League on TV data. That best figure being the 5th best overall regular season viewing number. We also know from our experience that plenty of you guys tune in to the Thursday games, based on the massive amount of your reviews we get on these each week.

It also can't be financial, because ticket prices are no higher for Thursday games. We now have free away travel for all season ticket holders too, although that is a fairly new initiative. Basically, there's no reason a Thursday game is less affordable than a Friday, Saturday or Sunday game.

So, it must be getting to the games that's the problem. Well, all the Thursday TV games are scheduled for the whole regular season from the off, so that gives plenty of time to plan for them. They kick off at the same time as Friday games, so in theory people have the same amount of time to finish work and get to games - most people that work a Monday-Friday 9-5 work week will have the same working hours on a Friday as a Thursday I assure you. I can't imagine traffic is much easier on a Thursday than a Friday either - although I have no empirical support for that statement.

I know one thing for sure, it's not because of the travel distance. Using an unwieldy but not entirely unreasonable assumption (that all fans travel from the home stadium to the away one!), the average away travel distance for UK fans in Super League is 55.8 miles, with an average journey time of 68 minutes - or about half an SLP episode! The average away travel distances on Thursday games since they became a firm feature for 2014 is 42.3 miles and less than an hour travel time - it falls to 36.7 miles if you take out the two 2014 fixtures that included London Broncos. I also looked at the correlation between travel distance and change in crowd size from the same fixture the previous year - there is none. Well, there's a weak negative relationship between the two with an indication that the two variables - distance between teams and change in crowd - have almost no link or causality (a correlation coefficient of -0.110 and an r-squared value of 1% if you're interested).

I think the travel distances and times also shut down some of the criticism that it's no good for fans who work during the week. Yeah, it's no good for people who work Thursday nights! But there will be shift workers who'll miss games whenever they are scheduled for - that's the nature of shift work, and not all Rugby League fans can get to all games if they work shifts. Simple. (although I've already pointed out the whole Thursday schedule is laid out before the season, but I digress.) Many fans that stay in and watch the games on TV will enjoy the coverage until it's 10:30 end to catch Jon Wells at the touch screen with one of the stars on show. The game ends at say 9:50. Give it 10 minutes to get to the car and get going. Then your average 50 minute travel time for an away fan. Most fans will still be home by 11:00 - and with a big majority of any crowd being home fans, you'd argue they're mostly back much earlier than that, probably the same time the TV viewers are heading off to bed.

Yes, there are some people who legitimately travel long distances to see their team play, making a weekday game very difficult for them to travel to and from on a regular basis. They are the minority though. Probably not even 1%.

I think that really just leaves the 'it's no good for families' argument then. Ok. Soon I'll give you some numbers and graphs - although as always with statistics, they can be used to support different arguments and picked apart as widely as you want to. Before that though, what do we mean by families? I'd wager we mean parents with children aged between 5 and 12. Younger than that and you probably won't take them to loads of games anyway, and if even if you did, there's probably not much to stop them sleeping through the following day. Older than that and the odd later week night isn't going to do them any harm, they're probably up in their bedrooms snap chatting until late in any case.

Thursdays get the second best average crowds of any day in the history of Super League, dating back to 1996. Only Fridays have a better average all-time crowd number.
These figures are open to percentage skew because of the relative small number of Thursday games until 2013, before which they tended to just be big Easter derbies. (Also, I'm aware Fridays tend to be the normal home game of the best attended sides - Leeds, Wigan, Hull FC, St Helens - and Sundays are the traditional home day of lesser attended sides.)

You'll see from the changes through time that as Thursday games became more commonplace, their absolute and relative position in the averages has fallen. Despite overall average crowds trending upwards and being in a healthy relative position up to Round 11 2016, Thursday crowds are not doing the same. Mondays enjoy a relative bump though thanks to Thursdays no longer being an Easter preserve.

Still, they're commonly better attended than other days. You know, those days when you can get 'families' to and from the game between bedtimes, with no worry of school the next day - those days we call Saturdays. And, for that matter, in many cases Sundays too, where there may still be tomorrow's school to worry about, but not bedtimes.
Obviously, the 'family' factor is one that deserves more investigation - numbers of young fans that each club has for example - but I'm just not seeing it as the problem that it gets referred to as. The same goes for Thursdays as a whole. Like I said, I think people like the excuse - and to have something to moan about. We need to get used to it though - Thursdays aren't going away. We need to realise that the money is in the TV audience rather than on the terraces, even though we'd love them both to be bigger.

I've found that, on average, a Thursday fixture attracts a crowd 888 people less than that same fixture the year before - although these are imperfect comparisons as weather, significance of the match and also some of them being on Thursdays the year before aren't factors accounted for. 15 games saw an increase and 42 had a drop in crowds since the start of the 2014 season compared to the same fixture in the previous regular season.
We can play some very simplistic and crude number games from this. Lets assume a per ticket price of £20, which is generous given lots of children will get in free and many other attendees would be concessions of some sort. I'm also not considering if an extra 800+ on a crowd means more costs to the home side. You get an average loss on ticketing of £17,760. Based on what Leigh owner Derek Beaumont said during the 2015 Super 8s, Super League clubs can get £20,000 per TV game they host. That's outside of the per-team yearly riches that are handed out from the long-term TV deal the league is locked in to.

However you dress it up, Sky like Thursdays and the club owners and money men must like them too. Lots of fans aren't put off by them - far more than are, they're just less vocal about it. We have to get used to them. We should embrace them, they aren't going away any time soon. I say lets make Thursday nights great for the game. Plan ahead, make as many games as you can and watch all the rest. Treat the couple of home games you might get as a bonus, freeing up the rest of your weekend. Do the maths on the away games to figure out if you can make them, when you do you'll probably realise they aren't the inconvenience you've decided they are. If I can do it as a Wigan fan, who already lives almost the average Thursday travel distance from our home ground, then I'm sure most of you can too. (note: Wigan have had more Thursday games than any other side in the whole Super League era and the recent Thursday TV era.)

Before I leave this, a couple more points on the crowd by day numbers. Why aren't Castleford, Huddersfield, Hull KR, Salford, Wakefield, Warrington and Widnes trying more Friday night games? Why aren't Saints trying a few more Sunday games? And why oh why is anyone other than Catalan playing on a Saturday? I write this on the same weekend Salford set a new low figure for 2016 on Saturday 30 April of 3,048.

Anyway, rant over. I feel cleansed. Hopefully getting this off my chest will improve my focus on my Dream Team and SuperBru performance.