In making its annual announcement of numbers of participants in the game this week, New Zealand Rugby announced that “rugby remain[s] a strong part of New Zealand communities” and “the game remains in an excellent shape”. However, a closer look at the statistics suggests that the core foundation of amateur Rugby Union in New Zealand, the community-based amateur club, faces significant challenges.
Let’s take a look at the numbers. Those aged 5 to 20 comprise less than a quarter (22%) of New Zealand’s population, but comprise 81% of all registered rugby players in the country. Those aged 5 to 12 comprise only around 10% of the population, but 55% of all registered rugby players. It is no longer news that the child participation rate does not flow through to the adult game, as this ratio has been relatively constant from year-to-year. However, those aged over 21 years comprise around 72% of the total population, but only 18% of all registered rugby players. (If you were to narrow this age range to those aged 21 to 50, as an approximate age band for those continuing to play rugby, the total population figure for the adult player group would fall to 40%).
These numbers indicate that only half the number of players who play as children are continuing playing as teenagers. And only two-thirds of teenagers continue to play rugby in adult life. This is perhaps not a new trend, but it is the primary issue for the viability of amateur rugby clubs (of which there are estimated to be around 600), across New Zealand.
With less than 30,000 adult players spread across the active clubs in the country (or 50 players per club, on average), a basic (and by necessity generalist) financial analysis highlights that many (if not most?) clubs are probably not financially viable and will almost certainly face future amalgamation or closure.
Are amateur clubs important for the future of the game?
Taking the example of a typical New Zealand amateur rugby club, *which charges subscriptions for membership of $40 for a child (aged 5 to 12), $80 for a Colts player (aged 18-20) and $120 for a Senior player (aged over 21), the total sum of player subscriptions received across New Zealand (assuming all players pay their club subscription) is only $7.8 million.
Based on the Financial Statements of a well-established urban community-based amateur Rugby club) Based on this example, before any local sponsorships, community trust or Provincial Union grants (if offered or available), that is the total sum that directly supports amateur club rugby in New Zealand. (By way of comparison, the total budget for players at each of New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises, is reported to be $23 million.)
As noted above, there are estimated to be around 600 amateur rugby clubs in New Zealand. If all clubs shared equally in the subscription revenue pool of $7.8 million (which of course they do not), the total annual budget to run the sport, per Club would be only $13,300 on average. Using the same example of the typical amateur rugby club, this sum would represent only around 10% of the club’s total playing costs (uniforms and their replacement, travel, ground hire, laundry etc.), per year. This is before the costs of operating and maintaining clubrooms and property (if the club has these facilities), are even considered.
Of course, amateur rugby clubs do not see any subscription revenue from those aged 13 to 20, as such funds flow to the educational institutions where students are enrolled. These subscriptions probably represent around $2.2 million nationally per annum. Spread across the nearly 400 secondary schools in New Zealand, the annual sum available for rugby development and administration falls to below $6,000 per school, on average. Again, based on an analysis of the playing costs of a typical secondary school, this sum would only represent around 10% of the total annual playing costs.
There is no doubt that the professional game is in excellent shape, but there’s a real question mark over how strong a part of New Zealand communities, rugby union can continue to be, in terms of on-the-ground amateur resources. It’s important to note that despite the headline growth of female players, 450 fewer registered coaches and 108 fewer registered referees were seen across New Zealand in 2017, compared to the previous year. In this writer’s opinion, coaches and referees are perhaps the canary-in-the-coal-mine that should be causing alarm. Coaches and referees are part of the amateur rugby club community.
As the amateur community weakens, there is no doubt the numbers of volunteer coaches and referees will continue to fall. Without over-stating the obvious, without these volunteers, particularly for players who are teenagers and above, players have no-one to develop them and no-one to officiate their fixtures. While the compound annual growth rate of registered players is a shade over 1%, it’s what the headline statistics are not telling us that really matters.
*Based on the Financial Statements of a well-established urban community-based amateur Rugby Club)