Meek or Marvellous: Can superheroes save Super Rugby?
The competition is in a mess, but is the Marvel superhero ploy really the way to go?
Super Rugby has been spluttering along for a while now, although the exact moment when it tipped into a downward spiral is not exactly clear.
The introduction of 18 teams in 2016 seems to be the accepted cliff it fell off, but when it expanded to 15 teams in 2011, it went from a plateau onto a downhill road that eventually fell off a cliff.
A return to 15 teams in 2018 might have slowed its messy splat into the ground, like an emergency parachute, but the competition is still falling and only the rugby equivalent of thermal air will make it rise again.
So it’s no surprise that rugby administrators are trying to do something, anything to stop the inevitable thud.
Goodness knows they’ve tried: More derbies, less derbies, conferences, conferences split into two, log points for byes, bonus points for tries, bonus points for losing by seven points or fewer, bonus points for scoring three tries more then the opposition, ring-fenced play-off guarantees for at least one team from each conference, and so on.
Nothing has really worked over the past decade and there are many reasons for that, some to do with SANZAAR’s own mistakes, such as tampering with a good formula, which Super 12 was.
But some of it is to do with external factors such as the rise of the northern hemisphere as a financial and playing power of the game and the inevitable player drain that has followed.
The geographical spread of Super Rugby, which was its initial appeal, has become the rock that is dragging it under.
Spreading the game further and wider has made it less connected and because it’s so fractured, the appeal is lost.
But the show has to go on for now and the thankless task of trying to sell the competition is carried by many entities.
SA Rugby, SuperSport and Vodacom in SA and their equivalent partners across the Indian Ocean have to try to make it work.
With that in mind, a couple days ago SA Rugby announced a deal with Marvel, the people that have made billions of rand selling superheroes on film and in comic book form.
SA’s four Super Rugby franchises will all have a superhero alter ego when they meet each other in local derbies in 2019 (but at no other time, for reasons unknown).
The Bulls will dress as Captain America, the Sharks as Black Panther, the Stormers as Thor and the Lions as Spiderman.
It’s not original, as the National Rugby League in Australia did something similar a few years ago.
Professional rugby players are generally built like the superheroes Marvel sells us and to a certain demographic – children under 12 – it might make some marketing sense.
But are they Super Rugby’s target market?
It wasn’t really explained how each franchise was assigned its superhero either.
Not that it matters, I suppose, but there might be some confusion for a Bulls supporting kid who had no connection to Captain America (the Bulls’ superhero) but a real affinity for Black Panther (aka the Sharks). The Bulls might actually lose a supporter.
And what of the Bull itself? Marketing 101 says have a mascot people can relate to and the bull has always been that.
It’s the same with the Sharks and the Lions, although relating to a “Stormer” is impossible.
The Bulls now have to market “Captain America”, or as he will become known at Loftus once Kurt Darren has rewritten his hit single, “Kaptein Amerika”, at the expense of the Bull.
It could be chalked down to some harmless fun for kids, but is dressing up in superhero costumes really what will turn Super Rugby around?
SA’s recent results in the tournament have been comical enough, without literally making the teams into comical characters.
The alternative of course, was for the marketing team to do nothing and hope the competition somehow sells itself. Which as history has shown us, is more far-fetched than the idea of Spiderman.