The rugby director for the Bayside Sharks is making a case to change the British Columbia rugby season.
Blackburn thinks with the rest of this year’s season cancelled because of the COVID-19 crisis, now is the time to act. He wants the B.C. rugby season switched from its current long-play format (a September to May, nine-month season) to a truncated season (a March to July, five-month schedule).
Blackburn’s point is razor sharp: the rugby season in B.C. is a lengthy, disjointed mess of starts and stops. The nature of the season creates player safety issues, burnout, and disinterest.
Each year, the B.C. rugby story consists of three fragmented chapters: 1.) the season starts off with a flashy, sunny intro of fast, exciting rugby that soon morphs into a waterlogged, mucky fall; 2.) then a winter lull sets in, replete with Christmas parties, hibernation, and field closures and cancelled games, with up to two months of down time – often all of December and January; 3.) and then the spring season arrives, with games slotted in from February until May. Tack on an August pre-season (one month), 7’s, and summer tournaments and players could be playing rugby 11 to 12 months in a year.
Blackburn points out the B.C. rugby season is also out of step with the rest of the country. Most other sports in Canada follow the same season. Hockey is played at the same time across the country. So too is basketball, football, volleyball, track and field, baseball, and many others. But while the rest of the country plays rugby from about May until October in a calendar year, rugby in B.C. mimics the English season.
Player safety issues arise under this format. As Blackburn says, players are never really participating at the height of fitness. They are amateurs. This stop-start nature of the season, spread out over nine months, “takes its toll on players physically,” he says. Blackburn doesn’t say it, but the players also play too many games.
Marga Sison with BC Rugby told the Cloverdale Reporter overall enrollment has steadily increased over the decades, but participation numbers have fallen off for both senior men and women.
“There is a general decline in our adult membership, but our youth numbers continue to increase,” noted Sison. “When these kids graduate high school, they continue to play in our senior leagues.”
In the mid-’90s, BC Rugby had 3,500 registered members; in the early 2000s that increased to 4,000; today, that number has grown to 7,600.
Sison said more than 20 per cent of current registered players (1,600) are minis (ages 5-11), with another large group being high school players, leaving, approximately, the same amount of senior players as there were in the ’90s. This despite B.C.’s population growing by more than 1.7 million people since 1991.
A compacted spring season may retain a great many social players that have left because they can’t commit to such a long season with young families at home and/or professional careers. A shortened season may also prevent burnout – something other sports are suffering from with the advent of “off-season” leagues and training.
The game would be better served by a shortened season too. A change would elevate the game out of the mud, literally, as the games would be played in the (mostly) better weather of spring and early summer than the (mostly) dark Saturdays that fill October to February. Problems like field allocation could be solved by moving some games to Friday, or Saturday nights, as Blackburn proposes.
A compact season could run from February to May with playoffs in June, or even March until May with playoffs in June. A March until May season could have about 10-12 league games, playoffs could follow for all using rugby’s timeless cup-plate-bowl-shield playoff format. (Major League Rugby, North America’s current professional rugby league, runs from February to May, with playoffs in June.)
Running a concurrent season with Alberta and Ontario could also mean better rep game competition for the elite athletes at the end of the B.C. season.
A better, more exciting product on the pitch may resonate with more fans and bring more people out to the games. Right now, the half-interested fan has nine months to show up and watch a game or two in the pouring rain. But under a spring-season format, an urgency may deliver more spectators to rugby pitches around the province. Also, better weather always encourages more supporters to show up to the pitch with their families.
It will take rugby leaders with vision – and the strength of Atlas – to convince B.C.’s rugby clubs to buy into changing the season. But rugby clubs aren’t handcuffed by the need to sell tickets or fulfill TV contracts, which is the problem in the professional game.
Will BC Rugby look at Blackburn’s idea and shrug, or will they do the work that’s required in order to make the game better for its 7,600 players? The very least they should do during the COVID shutdown is study the practicality of a change.
To be sure, changing the rugby season isn’t likely to happen – even if it’s in the best interests of the players and the game. But Blackburn should be applauded for advancing an idea such as this. It takes courage to advance an idea many will resist, mostly because people don’t like change, even in situations where it’s in their best interest.