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South Africa’s URC safari is pushing the tournament to new heights

South Africa’s URC safari is pushing the tournament to new heights
Embrose Papier of the Bulls during the United Rugby Championship match against the Sharks and at Kings Park Stadium in Durban on 1 June 2024. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

South Africa’s best rugby teams are driving increased live audience and TV viewership figures in the United Rugby Championship.

While South Africa’s participation in the United Rugby Championship (URC) poses some logistical and commercial issues locally, it’s been a huge success according to tournament chief executive Martin Anayi.

The 16-team league is in its third year and it’s no exaggeration to say that South African clubs and fans have added quality and value to the Northern Hemisphere competition.

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United Rugby Championship chief executive Martin Anayi. (Photo: Gareth Everett / Huw Evans / Shutterstock / BackpagePix)

Anayi rattled off the numbers that back up this assertion (more of that later), and when you consider that South Africa is not yet a shareholder in the URC, it can only get better.

In June 2025, the South African Rugby Union (Saru) is set to gain full membership status of the URC. In day-to-day terms, nothing much will change, but in commercial terms, it will be a seismic shift for Saru.

For the past three years, Saru has paid the way for the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers to participate in URC. And it also had to pay for those teams, plus the Cheetahs, to compete in European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) – the Champions and Challenge Cups.

That costs R330-million a year, according to Saru’s last financial report.

Not having that huge cost burden in a year’s time will free up a great deal of money to plough back into the local game. 

It should lead to an increase in annual disbursements to franchises and even the “smaller unions” and pay for business-class flights for teams on URC and EPCR duty. The latter has been a source of friction between SA’s teams and Saru.

South Africa’s move to URC has also shaken up the tournament status quo when it was called the PRO14 and PRO12 previously. Irish teams dominated the competition, winning it 14 times – eight by Leinster, four by Munster and one each for Connacht and Ulster.

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Joseph Dweba of the Stormers in the United Rugby Championship match against Connacht at Dexcom Stadium in Galway, Ireland on 18 May 2024. (Photo: Cole Cruickshank / Gallo Images)

In two completed years of URC, South Africa has had one winner – the Stormers in 2022 – and two runners-up in the Bulls (2022) and Stormers (2023). It has given the competition the boost it needs to improve.

The Stormers sold out last year’s 55,000 tickets for the final against Munster at DHL Stadium within three hours.

The Bulls and Stormers are in the quarterfinals again this year. The Bulls finished second in the final standings after 18 matches, while the Stormers claimed fifth.

If the Bulls advance to the final, and Munster, who topped the regular season table don’t advance, the Bulls will host the final. The only problem is they might not be able to play at Loftus Versfeld on 22 June. The stadium has been booked for South Africa’s presidential inauguration.

If that scenario arises, the Bulls will host the game at the mammoth FNB Stadium, rekindling memories of the 2010 Super Rugby final. That year, the Bulls hosted the feature match at nearby Orlando Stadium because Loftus had been taken over for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

“In many ways, the South Africans have taught us about professionalism and how to be professional… the game has been run along professional lines for longer there,” Anayi said at a URC media round table this week.

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Elrigh Louw of the Bulls during the United Rugby Championship match against the Sharks at Kings Park Stadium in Durban on 1 June 2024. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports / Gallo Images)

“We have been tracking up on the metrics and breaking things down territory by territory, focusing on audience growth across social media, broadcast and ultimately bums on seats. Those are the key metrics. 

“We have been working super hard with the clubs to show growth and healthy competition and it appears to be working.”

Impressive growth

The numbers Anayi revealed show a tournament growing significantly, although what is less clear is whether this has translated into income growth.

For the first time in the brief history of the URC, at least one team from each of the five participating countries has reached the playoffs thanks to the Ospreys’ near-miraculous qualification in the final round. Italy’s Benetton are also through to the last eight.

“It has become a proper pan-country competition and we are most proud of that… it is great to see teams from all our different nations making the playoffs,” Anayi said.

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Manie Libbok of the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship match against Emirates Lions at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town on 1 June 2024. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“We haven’t had that in the previous two seasons. It tells us that the competition is working. We want jeopardy throughout the league.

“It was a really close run-in – it went down to the last game, and to get a Welsh qualifier and Benetton getting in from Italy was great… It shows us we have a strong league. It is not just at the top end but also in the deeper reaches of the league.”

Strong metrics

It all points to a tournament that is healthy in terms of competitiveness and appears to be healthy when measured in other ways as well.

“Our broadcast audience is up 49% globally, and in the UK and Ireland it is up 24%,” Anayi said. “Attendances are up 67% on last year’s record accumulative audience.

“Social media is also up, and we are fourth globally on YouTube when it comes to rugby competitions. That includes the National Rugby League (Australasia). What it shows is there are more eyeballs on the URC, and as a result of that, more eyeballs on our clubs and individual brands.

“Our database provides a good barometer of how many people are engaging. We’ve gone into it in depth and have found that it is up 116% from when we started the URC (from the PRO14).

There has been a year-on-year rise, and last year’s 34.9 million cumulative audience has already been surpassed – that is before we’ve even seen the figures from Round 18.

“There has been growth right across the competition and across the territories. We are on Sky Italy for the first time in a while and that is going well for us, with the Italians obviously enjoying Benetton’s success.” DM

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