I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve been to Newlands Rugby stadium and that’s not because I haven’t had a reason to. As a Bulls supporter, there are at least two games a year that I would want to watch and I really don’t mind getting a bit of stick for wearing the enemy shirt. Hell, even attending this past weekend’s Marvel superhero-themed double-header rugby extravaganza at Cape Town stadium with my family (including two young children) netted me an unsolicited “fok jou!” from one of the Cape’s more colourful local rugby supporters. I know all about banter and manic fandom.
I watched every single home game the Bulls played in the 2009 Super 14 campaign. Yes, semifinal and final included. Morne Steyn kicking the crap out of the Crusaders in the semis? I was behind the posts in the South stand. Running up 61 points in the subsequent final against the Chiefs? Again, five rows back from the action. I’ve braaied outside the stadium too and got on my ear singing Die Campbells songs at the beer garden after a game. See, I was homies with the mascot and benefitted from his set of tickets for family and friends.
My point is: Newlands rugby stadium has a storied history, but it lacks any form of real culture and atmosphere. Why? The tickets are too expensive and the stadium hasn’t been brought up to modern standards. In 2019 you can still buy a standing ticket in the Danie Craven stand. Also, most pressingly, travel options are not ideal.
As the name suggests, the stadium is situated in leafy Newlands and was historically not intended for use by the larger Cape Town community. Be that as it may, the dense suburb and narrow roads make it hugely inaccessible and the adjacent train station is simply not an option because of increasing safety and reliability concerns. Newlands is a shithole when compared to the shiny decade old Cape Town stadium which was built for the 2010 soccer World Cup. But that’s not really the point.
It’s the dual nature of it being a festival celebrating local franchise rugby and all four local Super Rugby teams, with the added lure of a Marvel merchandise tie-in. At R850 I wasn’t going to be updating my 2007 championship-winning Bulls jersey for a Captain America (not even in my top 5 superheroes) styled version. It still puzzles me that the Puma shirts are so expensive because the much more eye-pleasing Spider-Man Lions shirt was a full R300 cheaper. But I digress. My kids loved the idea of superhero rugby and thoroughly enjoyed their time at the stadium, with bonus excitement points gained for the bus ride.
Cape Town stadium and Loftus are much more accessible logistically. Both are integrated into the bus rapid transport routes and this takes a lot of the travel stress off of parents with small kids. Taking a three-year-old to an event with an over 40000-strong crowd and limited toilet options is a nightmare scenario, but slick logistics help a lot. The only criticism I do have is the lack of electronic payment facilities at the stadium kiosks. This greatly increased the queue lengths at the food trucks because those vendors had card facilities and SnapScan.
I believe the event success can translate to the regular season if the ticket pricing is held at reasonable levels. I took a family package which included four tickets for R150. I spent more than that on the first coffee run when we got to the stadium and probably would’ve shelled out for more refreshments if I knew I needed cash. And R37,50 per ticket is also not a lot of money to walk away from if there is a crisis which may prevent me from attending, so I’ll be more inclined to book ahead for the Stormers/Bulls clash.
#SuperheroSunday proved that the appetite for local rugby derbies is still there. This was a pre-season game that drew a bigger crowd than the Sevens. I am okay with having expletives hurled my way for wearing a Bulls shirt in Cape Town because it shows the passion and the tribalism that still exists within South African rugby-watching communities.
Rugby is more than just our premier sporting code, it’s woven into the fabric of our society. From the historic 1995 World Cup to the Bulls winning a championship at Orlando Stadium, rugby transcends racial and class divides. But this is a market that is price sensitive. You can’t charge premiums on tickets when the teams aren’t winning. And you can’t foster a strong rugby culture without bums in seats.
A little bit of clever marketing that prioritises the fan experience over the quality of the game being played combined with good logistics can pack out a stadium. I’m certain that dividing everything by four and turning each local Super Rugby game into a similar spectacle will nett good gate results.
Yes, the Bulls lost and it stung, but the quality of the game between players who were obviously carried by the capacity crowd was exceptional. Many of the players on the field had obviously never heard the roar of 45000 voices and for my kids’ first stadium experience to have been exposed to that kind of atmosphere was more than I could’ve hoped for. Now if only the Stormers would shift to Cape Town stadium.