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The Whole Nine Yards

Following the conclusion of last month’s Auckland Nines, event organiser and 2011 Rugby World Cup chief Martin Snedden spoke to Elisha Chauhan about how the annual rugby league tournament improved on 2014, and how it can go to the next level.

This year the Auckland Nines had to prove it wasn’t first time lucky when the inaugural event was held in 2014.

Taking place between January 31 to February 1 and participated by all 16 clubs from Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) – one of which is based in Auckland, New Zealand – the Nines, as the name suggests, is played by nine players on each team over two nine-minute halves.

The event was created in partnership with Auckland-based event management firm Duco Events, who signed a five-year deal with the NRL, from 2014 to 2018, to host the two-day tournament at Eden Park. To ensure an entertaining level of competitiveness, all teams must select one of their top five players and 12 of their top 25 players as a minimum within their squad.

Duco Events CEO Martin Snedden, who is the former boss of New Zealand Cricket and headed up New Zealand’s successful hosting of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, believes that the event’s success lies in the standard of play, which he hopes will increase year-on-year as teams and spectators alike recognise the Nines as a major event on the sporting calendar.

It would be interesting to increase the number of female teams

“The major change from last year has been the quality of play on the field,” Snedden told SportBusiness International. “Last year quite a lot of the teams turned up in Auckland really very unsure of whether they should be taking the competition seriously, and probably hadn’t done much in terms of preparation.

“This year a large number of teams had clearly identified the Nines as an opportunity to start the season with a bang. The games were a lot more competitive because of that, particularly as we got to the crunch end of the event.

“From our standpoint, the most important ingredient to make this event have successful longevity is for the action on the field to be truly competitive, and so we were absolutely thrilled that it had taken a big step in this direction from last year.”

The NRL also increased awareness of the Nines by hosting its official regular season launch in Auckland on the Thursday before the weekend’s action – the very first time the launch event had been held outside of Sydney – while this year’s tournament added a three-match series played by national women’s teams, the New Zealand Kiwi Ferns and the Australia Jillaroos. Snedden says this was one of the highlights of the event and he will propose a potential expansion of the women’s game when it comes to reviewing the tournament later this year.

“It would be interesting to increase the number of female teams for future Nines tournaments,” he adds. “We will definitely put it into the mix and try to get a team out from Great Britain. Maybe even the Pacific Islands teams would like to participate – it’s certainly worth considering.”

Numbers Game

Despite additional games and an improved standard of play, the Nines suffered a slight reduction in attendance, falling just short of a sell-out event with 43,000 spectators per day compared to Eden Park’s 45,000 capacity. Last year’s weekend attendance totalled 89,000.

Snedden puts this down to an increase in ticket prices and having to bring the event forward by two weeks due to Eden Park’s hosting of 2015 Cricket World Cup matches. To put the attendance into perspective, he says, the only other event that could fill the venue with similar numbers would be if the New Zealand national rugby union team played against England, Australia or South Africa.

“The tournament itself is profitable, but in the end the difference between profit and loss is the number of spectators. We surpassed the break-even target quite comfortably this year,” Snedden adds. “We’re currently finalising the figures, but we estimate that the number of Australian spectators increased from 6,800 last year to 7,500 this year, with domestic visitors in the region of 12,000. The economic benefit to the region is around NZ$9 million, which by New Zealand standards is pretty good.”

The decision to host the event in Auckland was a strategic one, despite all but one NRL team deriving from Australia, and according to Snedden, the city “stacked better than anywhere else in terms of providing benefits to the host city”. However, while Duco Events’ five-year deal has secured Auckland as the Nines host city until 2018, there have been recent reports that Australian tourism officials are interested in taking over the hosting rights.

“We want to make it extremely difficult for anyone else to take the Nines away from Auckland when the licence comes to an end,” he says. “We just have to make sure that Auckland produces a spectacle every year, so it just becomes too difficult for the NRL to shift it to another city. 

“But I suspect that as we get closer to the end of the five-year contract, cities like Brisbane and Melbourne are certainly going to take an interest in hosting the Nines. It is likely in the next 10 years that the nines format will gain quite a lot of traction at all levels of rugby league. It will become popular in schools and clubs, and in lots of ways it’s going to provide a viable alternative to the full game all over the world.

“It’s possible for the nines to break into multi-sport tournaments. Some consideration now needs to be given on whether or not there is a World Nines competition played by either domestic clubs or national teams. There’s definitely room on the international stage for rugby league to expand what we have started here into something greater.”

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