Easily the most disappointing aspect of Sale's 20-29 defeat to Bath Rugby on Saturday was the meagre crowd of only 5353 that turned up to witness the start of the new Aviva Premiership season in the North-West.
It was a clear blow to Sale Sharks the club, who had hoped that moving kick-off times to 2pm on a Saturday would have resulted in a substantial increase on the average home crowd of 6350 from last season that ranked them 11th out of 12 in average attendance across the Premiership for 2013-14.
It was an especially disheartening turnout considering the relative success Sale enjoyed last season on the field; a surprise 6th place finish meant qualification for the inaugural European Champions Cup, yet that was not enough to encourage fans to show up for the home opener of a brand new rugby season, a game that typically draws larger crowds than most others over the course of a season. If 5353 is going to be the crowd size that pushes Sale's average attendance up over the course of the coming season, one thinks only with trepidation at the thought of how small a crowd will show up for an LV Cup game in the darkest depths of the Northern winter.
So where do Sale go from here?
One game of course does not make for an entire season so perhaps the less-than-anticipated crowd present on Saturday will turn out to be an outlier, one that will be hastily forgotten when 8,000 + show up to see Sale play Exeter in December for example. Or it could turn out to be an ominous warning of bleak times to come for the club, especially when the lack of any Premiership Football or top-level Cricket games for Sale to compete with last weekend are factored in.
The truth is, not I, or indeed anyone at the club or in the supporter base knows just how the switch to Saturdays will turn out over the course of this season. It could very well turn out to be a huge success or a miserable triumph, but, alas, no secret has been made of the substantial losses Sharks' owner Brian Kennedy has had to swallow in recent years and unlike some of Sale's more affluent rivals (Saracens come to mind) Sale's financial future depends on increased revenue from gate returns and ipso facto, larger crowds attending home games. With such high stakes, it is little wonder that home attendance is anxiously discussed at every opportunity by Sale Sharks fans.
However on a more positive note before we write off Saturdays for home games entirely, and it must be remembered that the largest crowd Sale have ever amassed at the AJ Bell since their move to Barton in 2012 came on a Saturday last season when Leicester Tigers came to visit. 10,092 showed up to see Leicester pull off a 42-22 victory, although, admittedly, it was Sale's last home game of the season.
And the second largest crowd for a Sale game at the AJB? Sale vs Wasps, a 14:30 Saturday afternoon kick-off drew 9,783 fans.
Whilst I concede that both were the final home games of the season, a fixture that usually draws a disproportionate amount of fans, it is clear that there is the potential for much larger crowds on a Saturday afternoon in Salford than there ever would have been on Friday nights. Saturdays also give a much larger group of away supporters the incentive and opportunity to attend games, Leicester Tigers brought over 1,000 fans for their trip to the AJ Bell last season. Whilst it is not ideal to have a stadium packed with away fans, Sale are close to a tipping point and really cannot be too picky about who attends games as long as they do so. I would also argue getting 1,000 + Tigers fans on a Saturday gives matches a much better atmosphere than the 50 or so that would make the difficult Friday night trip up to Salford. Saturday kick-offs therefore must be immune from the rash and knee-jerk decision-making Sale have suffered from in the past and at least be allowed time (preferably all season) before being properly evaluated from a financial standpoint.
But what is clear to see is that more needs to be done to draw in the casual or disillusioned Sale fans that the team so desperately needs to be present at the AJB over the next nine or so months. One area that certainly needs reevaluating is the club's marketing department. Of course I am not aware of Sale's internal budget or whether Sale have the means to actively market to a diverse range of interests throughout the North-West and beyond but the lack of advertisement for the Sale-Bath game last week was appalling. Beyond asking Sale's 23,000(!) Twitter followers to 'retweet' if they were coming to Saturday's game, I heard no mention of the game on any other medium, beyond a few soundbites on Granada Reports or BBC North-West Tonight. What Sale really need to target is printed advertisements. Sale have well-forged links with the Manchester Evening News and receive excellent in-depth coverage by the paper's sports section, so why are the club not utilising this relationship to advertise in the paper? The MEN is distributed to tens of thousands Manchester residents every week, reaching all areas of Manchester, many of whom currently receive precious little attention from Sale's marketing department. A simple banner ad, similar to the very well-designed ones (as seen below) currently used to advertise the next home fixture on the club's website, Twitter and Facebook page spread throughout the paper would suffice and would do well to at least give the club some publicity across all of (Greater) Manchester. It is a small expenditure but a necessary one if Sale are ever to begin attracting the full-capacity crowds originally envisioned when first moving to Barton.
Other suggestions made over on the Supporters' message board include distributing discounted or even free tickets to local rugby clubs, many of whom play on Saturday mornings thereby giving both kids and parents alike an incentive to attend both local and professional games. What was noticeable on Saturday was the distinct lack of large groups of playing-age children who usually fill out a number of sections in the stands. Saturday afternoons always had the potential to alienate those supporters and their children or parents who either play or attend local rugby clubs, so forging stronger links with the vast amounts of local teams in the surrounding areas and finding a solution to ensure those sets of fans can "have it both ways" is paramount as their support was sorely missed last week.
These are only a few suggestions and there are more things that can be done to increase crowds, many of which I am sure Sale Sharks are currently working towards. But for now, let's give Saturday kick-offs their due diligence, remembering that whilst last Saturday was disappointing, they do offer a fantastic opportunity for many different sets of fans (myself included with a move to Leeds imminent, Saturdays make it a lot easier to attend Sale matches than Friday nights) and that Sale's largest crowds since moving to Salford have come on a Saturday.
And do make sure you get down to the AJ Bell a week on Saturday for the London Welsh game (September 20th), Sale need your support now more than ever.
Comments as ever are deeply appreciated, and don't forget to follow @SharkTankRugby on Twitter.