When Did the Wellington Sevens Mojo Disappear?

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WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JANUARY 31: A general view of Westpac Stadium during the 2016 Wellington Sevens at Westpac Stadium on January 31, 2016 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Visitors to New Zealand will often bring a small list of goals. A bungee jump, see the snow covered mountains and wide open spaces. Throw in a Hobbit or two, and it’s a great visit–but some will place another event high on the list. Post-New Year celebrations, the summer fair for any rugby fan will be the Wellington Sevens tournament.

The two day rugby sevens tournament is timed to take advantage of summer, is a leg of the HSBC Sevens Series and at times, Westpac Stadium was ‘packed to the rafters’ (see main picture). Just as so many other events are synonymous with their city: Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 or Bathurst 1000. Even the  Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling festival brings it’s followers to the Cotswold countryside. For the Wellington Sevens, it had been the place to be seen and a focal point for the summer.

In recent years, that love affair has been tarnished slightly, with pictures going around the world of a less than full stadium. In one of the most complex reductions in popularity, the event in 2017 is contemplating ticket sales of only 15,000–this is in a stadium that can seat up to 38,000 [see Super Rugby final 2016]. In years past, the event sold out in hours, but it seems the Wellington Sevens mojo has disappeared.

And it is disappointing for both locals, as much as for holidaymakers who will have wanted to join in the party.

When Did the Wellington Sevens Mojo Disappear?

There are the loyal sports fans…and specifically Rugby Fans. They will travel far, pay a lot and be thoroughly satisfied. Of those, some will return to events year on year, so expect them to be in Wellington on the weekend of January 28-29–but not in the numbers that fans recall. The picture at top is what many will envisage when they recall the heyday of the Wellington Sevens. But for the last three years, it has been more like the one below…..a view of growing numbers of empty yellow seats.

A general view of Westpac Stadium during the 2016 Wellington Sevens at Westpac Stadium (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

For the the last few years, even while enjoying high quality rugby sevens matches and a winning New Zealand team [5 out of 6 tournament wins], the epic event has been less popular. Low ticket sales have taken the headlines, and with that taken the positive vibe away from the tournament. And with that, have come the arguments about why. Rugby commentators continually ask the question of the Wellington Sevens “how has the event lost it’s mojo?.”

For locals, they also ask that question “why did you ever change it?”. They being the Wellington Regional Stadium Trust, the local council and New Zealand Rugby (NZR). And while the stakeholders will provide policy and guidelines to support many of the alterations made to the event since 2013, it has been detrimental to the Wellington Sevens, and to it’s traditional target market.

New Policy on Alcohol Sales/Behavior and the ‘Fun Factor’

When policy changes were first mooted, most were made with good intentions. New social behavior norms needed to be acknowledged. Alcohol being at the forefront but not the only change. Fan/spectator behavior had always seen as ‘hearty enjoyment’. But evidence from the Police pointed to more people being ejected for drunkenness and the report began to impact on tolerated alcohol sales, consumption and ultimately, behavior guidelines.

Traditionally an event that began with a parade through the city’s main street on the Thursday, and beginning on the Friday. That was changed to be a Saturday/Sunday event and a more family friendly atmosphere was encouraged. That was certainly a positive for some, meaning that you would not need to take a day off work. For longtime fans who had grown up with the event, their needs changed. Men would now bring the wife and kids along; leaving the costume at home, so times had changed.

But for the fans who came to push it to the ‘excess’ it meant surrounding areas became alcohol free. Entry conditions were tightened–trains bringing in fans even had Police doing pre-entry checks, to halt the trend of ‘pre-loading’ – the practice of buying mixed drinks, to kick start the party. So extra controls and many were denied entry for being intoxicated.

To a degree, these were terminal for the event, known as ‘a party you might find hard to remember’. And with those, comments were made that the ‘PC police have taken away the fun factor’. For mine, it is common practice at major events, so the times changed, standards became consistent and with that came discontent, and conjecture.

Wellington Sevens More Than Just an Excuse to Drink

Others agree with the controls put in place. Westpac Stadium chief executive Shane Harmon said at the time “it’s not an excuse to drink” when questioned by stuff.co.nz on how the changes affected the party atmosphere. True, the sport should always be the focus, but at a two day event, dressing up, singing along to the music in between games and that all important feel-good factor needed to be retained. Such a hard balance, many might say the organizers ‘got the mix wrong’.

One News TV presenter, and sports commentator Peter Williams has intimated that “any sports event that relies on drunkenness for mass appeal, has no future.” While that is not wholly true, the problems (and figures) do not lie. In 2012 police reported drunken incidents were down but more than 100 people were arrested. He illustrated that sixty-eight were thrown out of the stadium over two days–that number was 270 in 2014, when the public outcry demanded change.

A major report by the Health Promotion Agency was a detailed examination. And while LWOR cannot promote drinking as the sole reason for attending, some have mentioned “you went to the Sevens on Friday and Saturday, and slept off the hangover Sunday.”

But it also lost it’s Mojo. It became less of an attractive product for some, and all the variables seem to be against the Sevens. So in 2017, organizers are promoting it as an entertainment location. Bring the Noise! is the marketing strategy. Harmon has brought in popular music acts, invested in Wellington restaurants to cook high quality food and look at the associated facilities.

So along with the family zone, and improved ticket prices, Last Word On Rugby believe; as does veteran broadcaster Keith Quinn, that the ‘no dickheads’ policy may just make the event less of a drunken party. And more of a pure rugby celebration. That will be a reason to travel from a far, the quality of sevens product…..no longer dressing up in a toga, and drinking for the sake of it.

Even if that was one hell of a party in days gone past, times have changed. The event needs to re-find it’s Mojo, and that maybe as a rugby tournament. The best players, the best teams and if the local team are in the final, expect fans to celebrate like they always did–and still be able to remember the good times, the next day without a hangover.

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HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Round Three

The 2016/17 circuit will make a stop in Wellington, after rounds in Dubai and Cape Town. The form of teams will be critical, after such a long break. New Zealand benefited from holding the National Sevens last weekend (where Counties-Manuakau won both men’s and women’s competition) so the NZ men’s team will be highly tuned.

The squad is (* indicates new caps):
Scott Curry – Bay of Plenty
Dylan Collier – Southland
DJ Forbes – Counties Manukau
Iopu Iopu-Aso – Taranaki
Trael Joass* – Tasman
Rocky Khan – Auckland
Andrew Knewstubb* – Tasman
Vilimoni Koroi* – Otago
Tim Mikkelson – Waikato
Sione Molia – Counties Manukau
Tone Ng Shiu* – Tasman
Sherwin Stowers – Counties Manukau
Isaac Te Tamaki – Waikato
Regan Ware – Bay of Plenty

Several debutantes will run out onto the Westpac Stadium on Saturday. Among them is Trael Joass, who incoming head coach Clark Laidlaw put his praise on, when LWOR spoke to him last Sunday.  He joins new caps Andrew Knewstubb, Tone Ng Shiu and flying Fijian Vilimoni Koroi, among the strong Kiwi side. Captain Scott Curry will hope the mix is right, to claim a fourth consecutive title.

Other sides to watch in Wellington will be the big four: South Africa, Fiji, England and Australia. Do not discount Scotland; who have made huge improvements, as will have Samoa. Super-coach Sir Gordon Tietjens has high hopes to bring Samoa back to the top of the field. Expect Kenya to be fired up, as will France.

WELLINGTON SEVENS – January 28-29, Westpac Stadium

“Main photo credit”

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