This Saturday could be the most important match in Sale Sharks’ history.
Money, as they say, makes the world go round, and as we in the dawn of the era of professionalism can now see, the game of Rugby Union is no longer exempt from the influence of hard cash, colourful billionaire owners and lavish spending.
Earlier this week it emerged that Steffon Armitage – former European player of the year – is considering a move back to England in the hope of regaining a place in the England Elite Squad ahead of next year’s World Cup on home soil. The first clubs to be linked with him are not surprisingly Bath and Saracens, the two most financially powerful teams the Aviva Premiership has amongst its ranks, both backed by a wealthy owner (or consortium in Saracens’ case).
Plenty has been already been written about Sale Sharks as a club as rugby threatens to go the way of football in which a small select few wealthy teams rule the roost and everyone else makes up the numbers. Sale Sharks in their current incarnation as a professional team would not exist without the generosity of Brian Kennedy as owner who year on year swallow Sale’s financial losses. But Brian Kennedy is no Bruce Craig or Mourad Boudjellal. Huge losses can only be sustained for a limited amount of time and it is folly to not believe that Kennedy sees the movement of Sale Sharks from being financially dependant on one man – him – to being a self-sufficient and profitable club as an absolute necessity.
Which brings me to Saturday’s game against Munster. Sale’s move from Stockport’s Edgerley Park to Barton’s AJ Bell Stadium in 2012 has not necessarily been a success to put it lightly. The stadium’s initially poor infrastructure, transport and access issues coupled with Sale’s woeful start to the 2012-13 season has seen many fans abandon the club and attendance numbers plummet. From crowds of 7-8,000 at Edgerley Park, Sale average just over 5,000 fans a game currently at the AJ Bell.
This season Sale looked to change that, changing their traditional kickoff time from 19:45 on a Friday night to 14:00 on a Saturday afternoon in a bid to attract more spectators to the ground, stem the haemorrhaging of Kennedy’s money and in turn, crack the 8,000 attendance figure needed to break even. The result? On the field at least we have seen much more exciting and attacking rugby from both Sale and their opposition – a necessity in ensuring casual attendees return for future games. But off the field, the move has been a disappointment as attendances have struggled to get over the aforementioned 5,000 figure.
That is set to change on Saturday with Munster’s visit to the AJ Bell, Sale’s first game in the inaugural European Champions Cup. Sale have already announced that it will be the best attended game since the move to the AJ Bell two years ago – putting tickets sold already past the 10,092 mark that turned out for the Leciester Tigers game last season and could very well sell out the AJ Bell for the first time in stadium history. One feels that this, above all others, is Sale’s best one chance to convince disillusioned or casual rugby fans in the North-West that Sale’s product is not only one worth re-investing time and money in, but also that the access issues to the stadium have been fixed and the stadium’s infrastructure has massively improved since Sale’s debut there in August 2012.
The 8,000 average figure has been quoted by Steve Diamond multiple times as the break-even number for Sale at the AJ Bell before they can begin to turn a profit and re-invest in the team. Munster at home, with the vast swathes of people coming from all over the North (and Ireland – Munster are probably the best supported away team in European rugby) affords Sale a fantastic opportunity to attract more fans to the club and future fixtures. A positive game both on the field and off it will certainly entice more people back as the club looks to hit that elusive 8,000 mark.
The importance of Saturday I cannot stress enough. Sale are severely limited in both squad size and financial muscle because of the constraints their low attendance puts on revenue. And in today’s game, where the likes of Saracens Gloucester and Bath can spend big on players and improving their team and facilities, there is little chance for Sale to improve in the league standing and challenge for trophies unless they themselves are able to generate more funds to improve their own standing within the league. The easy way of doing this is of course is to have large crowds at each game but Sale don’t play in Northampton or Exeter where the rugby union teams are the biggest show in town; Sale are in Greater Manchester and area home to two world-renowned football teams along with countless lower league teams and half of the First Utility Super League making competition for fans and interest fierce. Munster is a massive opportunity for Sale to finally rid themselves of the demons of the AJ Bell move. It is an opportunity they cannot afford to lose out on. If they do, it could be the end of Sale Sharks as a professional team.