Regional kick-off times have long been a subject of much debate in Welsh rugby. Every fan has their preference, whether it be Saturday afternoon or Friday evening and they all have the time slots which they dislike the most.
It’s become all the more of an issue this season with the introduction of Saturday night kick-offs in the United Rugby Championship. Those have proved pretty unpopular overall and it cropped up as a talking point once again at the weekend amid a 7.35pm start at Parc y Scarlets for the derby with Cardiff, whose fans highlighted the very real challenges that scheduling created. You can catch up on how that game went here.
So what are the views of the regions and their supporters on the subject? We have spoken to officials and fan representatives from all four to see what they think?
The west Wales region have done a lot of work in finding out the views of fans on the issue, as their Chief Operating Officer Phil Morgan confirms.
“We engage with regular surveys and gather information from ticket purchasers and kick-off times are always cited right at the top of the list of reasons why people don’t come to games,” he said. “After every match, we also pick up the sentiment expressed by fans across the various social media channels.
“For us, 3pm or 5pm on a Saturday would be our preference. I know Cardiff favour a Friday night game. You can appreciate that with a city-based club. People have a beer after work and go straight into the game, so they are well attended. We are more a slightly rural type club. It’s not uncommon for some of our fans to travel an hour plus to come to a home game.”
Yet that preferred Saturday afternoon slot has proved a real rarity for the Scarlets this season.
“The majority of our home URC games have been 7.35pm, either on a Friday or a Saturday,” said Morgan. “We know it kills the family audience and you have also got the travel constraints. Sometimes public transport is just non-existent when fans are coming out of the ground. People say they are getting home at midnight, close to 1am.
“Supporters sometimes think it’s down to the club, but it’s not the club, it’s the broadcasters picking it. It’s something I have been trying to lobby the URC over. We had a meeting with the broadcasters before Christmas and I did a bit of analysis which I sent off to them, showing we were far too heavily weighted towards 7.35pm kick-offs.”
It was that time slot on Saturday for the visit of Cardiff and it will be the same again for the next home game on April 16 when the Dragons are in town.
“The derbies are such a big part of the season, you would ideally want to capitalise on those, massively so,” said Morgan. “But we just don’t get any consultation. URC come back and tell us this is what the broadcasters pick. Last Saturday was only on Premier, but 7.35pm on a Saturday is typically the S4C slot. They like to have Scarlets on and that is their pick.
“I do understand we all need money and the league has to maximise the broadcast rights, but we also have to look after our fans. I have been lobbying on that very hard. The league are clearly aware of it. The bottom line is it’s financial. That’s why every game is televised. But we are not helped by the fact that every game is shown live.
“If you look at the Gallagher Premiership, while they do televise matches across the weekend, you have always got about 60-70 per cent of their games are 3pm on a Saturday. We don’t have any.
“They also have a good blend of home and away fans in the Gallagher. We are trying to fill a stadium with predominantly home supporters. With the exception of the derby games, you are lucky if you get 50 to a 100 away fans. I often sit in the stand trying to pick out the away support. That’s difficult, whereas you go to Gloucester, Worcester, they are filling their grounds because they are getting a couple of thousand away fans coming. We are a cross country league.
“The other thing is the way our season flows. We started with three games in four weeks in October, then there was a great big gap, then we had three games in four weeks in January, then another big gap. It’s very, very difficult to maintain fan engagement and fan interest.”
The official attendance for the Cardiff game at Parc y Scarlets was 7,800, but that figure does include all 3,500 season ticket holders, whether or not they attend the match. One issue that does get raised in Wales in terms of Saturday afternoon kick-offs for the regions is how that rules out people who are involved with community club matches.
But Morgan says: “I don’t think it’s as much of an issue as we thought it was. If that argument was to hold up, then our 7.35pm would be stronger attended fixtures as that frees up people involved in the community game and that isn’t the case.”
Giving his overall thoughts, Morgan said: “It was very difficult when we went behind a paywall with Premier Sports. That certainly wasn’t good for Wales. The league have listened on that. We have got a good proportion back on free to air, which is clearly needed here. But we have to get away from every game being televised live, so we can establish a good flow of fixtures in the prime slot of Saturday afternoon.
“But it’s not going to change for three years because that’s the current length of the broadcast deal. There is no quick fixes. We are constantly on to the league and the broadcasters to get more favourable kick-off times. The other three regions feel it as well, but we are probably the largest geographical region. At the end of the day, a strong brand is well attended games.”
The CF10 Rugby supporters Trust took to social media over the weekend to raise their concerns over the 7.35pm kick-off for Saturday’s away game against the Scarlets. Simon Jones is a Trust board member and he spoke to us to sum up the views of Cardiff fans.
“There is a general point around the way in which kick-off times are arranged,” he said. “The feedback we have got is people really want to create a habit. That means having identified time-slots so people know what is going on and can build that habit.
“This season has obviously been hugely disruptive with having breaks for Covid, so you’ve gone a massive stretch without any games. But what we feel, going forward, is the URC really needs to think about how it creates that habit. Obviously there is a challenge with that because you are talking about different time zones but I don’t think it’s beyond them to be able to do it.
“Specifically with the 7.35pm on Saturday night, what’s been really disappointing is Cardiff played the Ospreys away in October in that time slot and the Scarlets away in it on the weekend. The trains stop going back to Cardiff at about 9.30pm, so basically you are hoping the game has no stoppages at all and runs completely to time in order even to have a hope of getting back.
“The derby games are the ones the fans really look forward to. It’s a trip that should be able to be made easily but when you put it on that late on a Saturday night, public transport is basically out of the question. That will always limit the number of people who are able to attend. It doesn’t make sense commercially for these fixtures not to be played at a point where you can maximise the number of people who are able to attend.
“We have experienced it twice this season. The Scarlets have probably experienced it more than twice and they have the Dragons in that slot again in a week or so. A late kick-off also means you are probably ruling out a lot of children attending. How do you build the next generation if you haven’t got that? Also older people maybe don’t feel comfortable travelling back at night. That has certainly been raised with us regarding the 7.35pm kick offs.
“I would have thought the broadcasters want some form of spectacle. I don’t for a minute think they want to put on games with half filled stadiums because it doesn’t add to what people are watching. It doesn’t generate that excitement. Part of that excitement is generated by having home and away fans. I have no doubt that this Saturday’s game, Cardiff against Scarlets, with a 3.10pm kick-off, the atmosphere will be completely different.
“This isn’t a league where many away trips are particularly viable. You have to plan it out if you want to go anywhere other than the games against the other Welsh sides. It just feels like missing a massive opportunity commercially, as well as in terms of growing the game, that these matches are put on so late on a Saturday night.
“I don’t think really there is a tradition of watching sport that late on a Saturday. Football certainly don’t play then, I think their latest game on a Saturday is 5.30pm. With 7.35pm, you potentially lose a cohort of fans because people have plans in the evening. You can’t go with family because it’s finishing so late. So I don’t necessarily think it’s in the broadcasters’ interests to be having this particular slot because you are losing a number of people who could be attending those games.
“I have been to Parc y Scarlets for 3pm or 5.15pm kick-offs by train and you get a good turnout there. It’s not just the away fans travelling. People travel in to Llanelli, to Swansea to Cardiff watch games. They might be coming from parts of England. That Saturday night kick-off just puts them out completely.”
On Cardiff fans’ preferences, Jones said: “A lot of people like the Friday night kick-off. You have the rest of the weekend free then. There’s a bit of an atmosphere around those games at the Arms Park. It feels like something fans like. But then a lot of people will say they want to bring family and it’s too late for them.
“Quite a few like the traditional 3pm Saturday kick-off because you can bring your family and make a bit of a day of it. If you push that to 5.15pm, that’s still not beyond that demographic. People can catch up with friends afterwards and get a train or a bus home.
“Probably the least liked are the kick-offs on a Saturday night and the Sunday afternoon. The Sunday games seem to lack a little bit of atmosphere at times, unless it’s a big European match. It’s just the nature of the day. A lot of people do family things on a Sunday as well.”
He concluded: “What the organises need to do is not think just about the overall income they get from the TV contract but how can they also align that with ensuring the best supporter experience and that the maximum number of fans can get to the game. I don’t think that’s being taken into account as much at the moment as it probably should be.
“There needs to be a way of maximising opportunities particularly around the derby games because they are the ones that create the excitement and the buzz for fans. I just see no reason why they are played that time on a Saturday night which universally is seen as a time people don’t want to be going to watch a rugby match. We do because we are supporters but I don’t think it would people’s choice. You are limiting the attendances with that slot.”
For the Gwent region, their next URC fixture is away to the Scarlets at 7.35pm on Saturday, April 16.
“That has been an issue for some of our fans,” said Official Supporters’ Club chairman Dan Hallett. “We have had some feedback when we’ve been trying to push for them to travel. They have cited the kick-off time as one of the reasons why they are not going to go. You are looking at not getting back home until pretty late.
“We are also struggling to get a decent number of people to go to the Ospreys away game because it’s on a Sunday (May 8). We have had feedback from our supporters saying they are not going to those games because of the kick-off times. They can switch on Premier Sports and watch it anyway.
“The feedback we get when we are chatting to people in the bar is that Saturday afternoons are one of the preferred options, mainly because we can get kids there. Quite a lot of people like the Friday night aspect because they can go out after work. It’s part of the night out. You do notice it’s a very different demographic on a Friday night. There are very few kids and even those that do are absolutely shattered by the time the game has finished and they need to get home.
“I personally would like to see a lot more early kick-offs on a Saturday so we can get some kids in. If we could have regular 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday afternoon, that would be fantastic. I would say for our supporters Saturday afternoon would be ideal, Friday night next and Saturday early evening after that. Sundays are no use to anyone. The problem we have got is we are competing with so much other activity, in terms of family time.”
Hallett added: “Most of us understand it’s the TV deal that’s pushing the times on us. I appreciate it’s difficult when Premier Sports pay the money, but equally they have got three channels to put it on.
“It would be interesting to know from the broadcasters, which time slots get the most viewing figures. If you are not doing a preferred time slot for each team, then there should be a fair split of shoving the games around. If they want to sell the coverage as great atmosphere, it causes a lot of issues if you have only got 3,000 people on the terraces. It’s not great visuals. They are almost sowing their seeds of doubt because of the kick-off times.
“One of the other issues people have is it’s all so sporadic. We’ve not had a home fixture for God knows how long and people get out of the habit. If it was consistent that would be one benefit. Ulster have always had Friday night kick-offs. They knew where they were going to be on a Friday night. We have no idea where we are going to be from one week to the next, what time slot, so you can’t build it into your week to week routine.”
One complication for the Dragons is that, like the Ospreys, they share their ground with a football club, Newport County, who play the vast majority of their games on Saturday afternoon.
“We do have that issue. Whenever I have spoken to the PRO14, or whoever previously, they have always mentioned that ourselves and the Ospreys are usually the biggest thorn in their side when it comes to fixtures because of the football. I suspect that’s why we get quite a few Sundays and Fridays,” said Hallett.
“I think the most important thing is regularity,” said Supporters Club chairman Grant Berni. “That really helps in terms of getting people to turn up week after week.
“Habit forming is really, really important and when the kick-offs keep on moving around it’s a pain. We have always said Ulster seem to get the Friday nights and have done for years and years. It’s not just a jealousy thing. It’s the fact that because they have got that regular slot, it’s habit building and people just keep on turning up.
“The kick-off time that would suit our supporters best is probably the Saturday 5.15pm slot. You have got grassroots games out of the way, you have got kids games out of the way. That is the prime slot. The Ospreys are trying to engage families and that is the ideal one for that.
“Our last game of the season, at home to the Bulls, is 8.10pm. That’s absolutely ridiculous. We are trying to get kids and families in the stadium, but when you have kick-offs that late it just puts people off bringing little ones with them. We try and make a bit of an atmosphere for the day and that includes things going on after the game with the Supporters Club. That’s not going to happen when the game is finishing at like 10pm.
“In terms of trying to turn it into a bit of an event and an experience for the day, it’s just too late. So late night kick-offs aren’t great, while 1pm on a Sunday is probably bottom of the list.”
Berni continued: “S4C had a regular slot of the 5.30pm game on a Saturday forever, but now they have opted for later. URC and the broadcasters don’t want to be televising empty stadiums and showing their league has no engagement. Everyone has got a part to play in this. There has got to be a better solution than the way things are at the moment. It just needs someone to come up with it.
“It’s been really difficult this season. Covid hasn’t helped on top of everything else. Numbers are dropping. People get used to watching it on TV or not watching it at all. It’s a challenge to get people to turn up at the home games considering the kick-offs moving round. We run buses and they aren’t going to be sustainable if the crowds stay where they are.”