Rugby Union

Brumbies boss Michael Jones says crowds key to Super Rugby club's future

ACT Brumbies new CEO Michael Jones.
ACT Brumbies new CEO Michael Jones. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

New ACT Brumbies chief executive Michael Jones is overhauling match-day operations to win back dwindling crowds, claiming filling Canberra Stadium is the key to securing the Super Rugby club's financial future.

But Jones says the sport must also look at ways to remodel the game itself to become more attractive to fans, broadcasters and sponsors.

Just two weeks into the role, the self-proclaimed "merchant of death" has already ordered a  review of membership and match-day experience as well as intensifying the hunt for a new major sponsor.

The Brumbies had a record loss of more than $1 million last year and retains only about $2 million of the $11.375 million generated from the sale of their former base in Griffith.

Jones has already forecast another financial loss this year, but he is confident of turning that around in 2015-16 as he introduces a five-year budget to plan further into the future.

The founder of Rex Airlines considers the Brumbies the best brand in Super Rugby and says he wouldn't have taken the job if he didn't think its long-term financial future was viable.

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Brumbies crowds have steadily dipped from about 23,000 in the glory days of about a decade ago to an average attendance of about 12,000 per game last season.

Despite the attendance drop, Jones says the Brumbies still enjoy the highest per-capita support in Super Rugby.

He wants the membership to become valuable again and use the game-day experience to entice people away from the television and back to Canberra Stadium.

He also wants to create match-day events in Canberra for away games, to further engage Brumbies fans.

"The call to action of people is 'Get behind us, come to the game, it's going to be better [than watching TV]'. So we then need to deliver on the promise of, if you come you're not going to miss out on being able to see this and do that," Jones said.

"There are things we can do on the big screens to see replays and be on the nose hair of the guys on the ground."

Major sponsor hunt expands

Jones almost signed on as chief executive last January, following the departure of Andrew Fagan, but he was lured away to look after Australia's America's Cup campaign.

He's already tapping into contacts he made in the billion-dollar world of yachting. But Jones is adamant he won't cut the asking price or rush a deal through if it's not right for the club.

The Brumbies are asking in excess of $1 million a season and Jones doesn't expect to have a major sponsor before the season-opener against the Queensland Reds at Canberra Stadium on February 13.

"The America's Cup is at the forefront of [sponsorship] because it's such an expensive sport, they've got sponsorship down to a fine art and I learned a lot out of that," Jones said.

"I've got some pretty good contacts and I've already started widening the web and calling in a few markers on people who can do referrals.

"I don't want us doing a bad deal because of urgency, we don't need to do that."

Refresh the game

Jones represented the ACT at under-21 level before he became an army officer and test pilot. It was as a rugby fan that he sat down with a television executive to discuss the marketability of the game a few years ago.

"He said, 'The problem is the game is hard to watch, the referees have become the stars, in an 80-minute game you get 16 minutes of play, nobody understands the rules at the breakdown, this obsession with scrums and who's going to get the penalty out of it . . . it's just nonsensical, you guys need to wake up',"Jones said.

"For us to be successful we need 1 million people to watch it. AFL gets it because it's non-stop action, it's got faster and better. Rugby needs to take a look at that."

Change of focus

Jones says the Brumbies must play local, but think global. He feels the club had been held back by being "very clubby" but needs to move forward with ambitions of being world class.

"There's a little bit of inward focus . . . we hit 60 countries, we hit 6 million people a weekend worldwide, but all our pictures are about Canberra," he said.

"We just happen to live here, but we're a global sport – it's just a slight emphasis [change]."

While new chairman Robert Kennedy has previously raised the idea of having a quota of Canberra players in the squad, Jones felt it wasn't viable to be competitive.

"I wouldn't like to put a quota on local players because our focus is to be the best team that we can be and I wouldn't want any impediment to say we have to tick this box," Jones said.

"I want to be a world-class organisation and world-class organisation's don't say we only recruit from the local [comp], it's just not feasible."

Jones understands the "disquiet" from club land about rising costs, which has had some clubs considering forming a breakaway competition.

But he is adamant the increased affiliation fees – brought about because the Australian Rugby Union no longer subsidises club rugby – are not being used to prop up the Brumbies' finances.

Some Canberra clubs will increase junior fees by 33 per cent, up from $150 per season to $200.

"I can understand that disquiet . . . but the reality is it's a lamentable fact for everybody that insurance costs are higher, litigation for personal injury, public liability is on the rise, we're getting more and more like America every day," he said.

"The ARU finances, they just can't keep writing cheques for everybody to fix the problem, so it's got to become more of a user-pays at the grassroots level.

"I don't think the cost is that unreasonable when you look at other sports."