“FIANCEE said that it was fun, even though the others won. I can’t stand anymore, ‘cos I can’t stand anymore. You were blind but you will see – tonight’s attendance one-two-three.”
So sang Half Man Half biscuit in ‘Friday Night and the Gates are Low’ – a somewhat misanthropic song about their local football team Tranmere Rovers’ historic preference for playing home matches on Friday evenings rather than the traditional Saturday afternoons.
Although HMHB lead singer and songwriter Nigel Blackwell is a fan of the round-ball game rather than rugby league, it is a song which may well chime with those 13-man code fans who despair of what Sky Sports imaginatively like to call ‘Thursday Night Super League’.
Last night marked the third season of the much-derided Thursday night fixtures as the 2015 Super League season kicked off at Headingley, with 16,168 in attendance to watch defending champions Leeds Rhinos take on Warrington Wolves.
The Thursday night slot may be beloved of the competition’s broadcasters, but is somewhat unloved by a large section of supporters – particularly in cases like last night where the fixtures necessitate trekking from one end of the M62 to the other on a weeknight with work or school the next day.
While an outwardly healthy attendance for the first game of the new season, it was still over 1,000 down on the corresponding fixture between the Rhinos and Wolves at Headingley last season, with 17,430 there for that Friday night game.
Thursday night rugby league originally started on Sky Sports when they began showing matches from what were then called the National Leagues – now Championship and League One – with many of the clubs involved putting on special offers to draw in the crowds for when the cameras came to town.
Sky has regularly broadcast matches from rugby union’s European Challenge Cup on Thursdays too, with it generally being a night where very little other high-profile sport is played.
Yet while it may suit both broadcasters and television viewers, the match-going supporter is generally less than satisfied with this arrangement.
Thursday night games first became a regular part of the calendar in 2014, with three having been played during the 2013 season – all of which had seen drops in attendances on the previous season.
The first Thursday game of 2014 again involved Warrington as they faced St Helens in a derby clash at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, with the attendance only slightly down on the previous year.
Salford Reds even managed to add an extra 3,000 paying punters to the gate for their Thursday night clash with the Saints, while the Hull derby at New Craven Park on Easter weekend saw an increase in attendance too.
Otherwise, it was mostly bleak picture for 2014 Thursday night attendance in comparison to the previous season’s matches. The biggest drops saw Wigan Warriors’ home game with Warrington down by nearly 5,000 – 2,500 fewer having watched the match at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, also played on Thursday – Leeds’ home game with Huddersfield Giants and the Rhino’s trip to the struggling Bradford Bulls.
There may have been hope the Thursday night matches might be starting to catch on when the 2015 season kicked off with 9,223 watching Widnes Vikings’ home encounter with Wigan – up over 3,000 on the previous season’s Friday night game.
But once again, it was a familiar picture as Thursday night attendances again generally suffered drops, although in most cases nowhere near as severe as the previous season.
Once again, the Hull derby over Easter bucked the trend, with several other games seeing minor increases. Yet there must have been some consternation over the more than 5,000 fewer who turned up for Wigan’s home clash with Leeds.
Even the introduction and allure of the Super 8s did not do much to boost attendances for those matches played on Thursday, with several of those fixtures featuring teams who had played each other in regular season matches on that night earlier in the season as well.
It is worth pointing out the figures in this article, compiled from the Rugby League Project database, are simple comparisons. They do not take into account factors such as the relative league positions of teams, the weather or any long-term trends in attendances rising or falling. Neither are play-off games included.
But as much as the RFL and Sky Sports seem intent to press on with the Thursday night experiment, it seems it has yet to find favour with those who hand over their hard-earned money to follow their teams.
Whether it ever will is anyone’s guess, yet as Blackwell and HMHB might say: “Thursday night and I love complaining – and no I haven’t got anything better to do.”