Peter Smith: Stagnant Magic Weekend ripe for re-evaluation and overhaul

The first Super League Grand Final, in 1998, was watched by a crowd of 43,553.

Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 8:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 30th May 2019, 9:01 am
Liverpool's Anfield Stadium hosts the Dacia Magic Weekend.
Magic Weekend at St James's Park, Newcastle last year.

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Twelve years later it had grown to 71,526. Magic Weekend made its debut in 2007 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and, over the two days, the six games were watched by a combined gate of 58,831.

This year, at Anfield, it was 56,869 so, rather than growing in the long term, as the Grand Final has done, Magic has stayed roughly the same and even declined a little.

In fact, this year’s aggregate was 7,450 down on the 2018 total, when the event was held at St James’ Park in Newcastle. That should raise questions not only about whether Anfield will stage Magic again in 2020, but also if it will continue at all.

The likely answer to both is a yes. Barcelona is being mentioned as a possibility, but the logistics – and enormous cost – of getting 50,000 fans to Spain from the north of England surely make that a non-starter.

Barcelona's Camp Nou.

It was Super League’s decision to move from Newcastle, the event’s most popular – in terms of spectators turning up – venue, to Liverpool and obviously the competition’s governing body will put a positive spin on it.

Likewise, the Rugby Football Leaegue (RFL) and now Super League have persisted with Magic since 2007 and there is no indication either organisation sees the need to pull the plug now. That should, to a degree, be applauded because one thing rugby league isn’t known for is continuity.

Different formats come and go and innovations are regularly introduced amid a great fanfare and then ditched a few years later, whether they have been a success or not. Club call and the Super-8s are two examples. With Magic, the jury went out in 2007 and still no verdict as been returned. Ideally, with more than a decade to build the event, it should be filling a stadium the size of Anfield on both days.

However, roughly the same number of fans are attending year after year. The gate went up in Newcastle, which was the ideal venue and dropped back for Liverpool, but overall there has been little change.

Magic is no longer used as a development tool which was the original aim in Cardiff and the second venue, Murrayfield in Edinburgh.

Four of the 13 weekends have been staged on the sport’s doorstep – three in Manchester, plus this year – and that effectively makes it two one-day festivals rather than one full weekend.

There would be little point in supporters who live west of the Pennines attending on both days last weekend and certainly not forking out for an overnight stay.

The fact Magic coincided with the Liverpool Marathon, so hotel prices went up and roads and bus services throughout the city were disrupted, was unfortunate and avoidable – bad timing.

Newcastle is far enough away for it to be a weekend venue, is also in what could be termed a development area – with its own ambitious Betfred League One club – and perfect for a multi-game event as the stadium is bang in the heart of the city.

To be fair, though, last weekend was far from the failure many pundits, including this one, were predicting. The crowd was down, but didn’t drop as low as Murrayfield in 2010 when only 52,043 attended – and the atmosphere was better than previous years.

Anfield may not be ideal for Magic, the seats are too cramped for a full day’s watching, it is too far outside the city centre and there is little of interest nearby, but it is an iconic stadium and a good rugby league venue.

Spectators are on top of the action, the viewing is good and the fact most fans couldn’t simply pile out of a pub and into the ground actually meant the size of the crowd remained fairly constant throughout each day.

With nothing else to do, it seems a collective decision was made to actually watch a bit more of the rugby and the opening game – Wakefield Trinity against Catalans Dragons – was played in front of a much bigger crowd than usual.

So there are some pluses as well as minuses but, if Magic is to continue, what the decision makers should do is swallow their pride and make a popular choice by returning to the north east on a long-term basis. Or even ask the fans what they want as they are the ones who really make it Magic, or not.