Harlequins plan to attract 50,000 for Christmas

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The Independent Online

A few years ago, Harlequins were struggling to attract more than 3,000 people to a league fixture – not because entry to the Stoop Memorial Ground was restricted to those earning seven-figure salaries in the City, although this was popularly thought to be the case, but because rugby in south-west London was traditionally a game for players, not spectators. Times have changed, massively. When Quins take on Leicester at Christmas, they will do it over the road at Twickenham rather than on home territory at the Stoop, in front of a record-busting audience of 50,000.

Mark Evans, by some distance the sharpest operator in the rugby union business, is following the trail blazed by Max Guazzini, the flamboyant media magnate who owns the Parisian club Stade Français. Guazzini has made a joyous habit of selling out the biggest venue in the country – Stade de France in St Denis – for domestic championship matches at 80,000 tickets a time. Evans believes Harlequins are handily placed to grab a piece of the same action.

"This is an ambitious project for us, a big stretch, but if we can bring it off it will be a big statement about Quins and another step for the sport at club level," said the chief executive, who initially hatched plans to attract a full house of 82,000 to Twickenham before the local authorities imposed the smaller figure because of limited rail services over the holiday break. "For us to seriously think about drawing 50,000 people to a club game – well, we're pinching ourselves. But we feel there is a gap in provision for sports lovers in the capital around Christmas time, and if this venture is successful, we'll look to make it an annual event."

Quins made a small operating profit last season and expect a nine per cent rise in season ticket sales for the coming Guinness Premiership campaign. "Our target at the Stoop is an average gate of 11,500, and we intend to take the capacity from just over 12,000 to 17,000 within five years," Evans said.

Good times ahead, then. Might the sky be the limit? "If you're asking me whether we can establish this club as the second sporting attraction in west London after Chelsea, I'd have to tell you that Fulham might have something to say about it," he replied. "But I certainly believe we're among the clubs capable of maintaining growth – speaking from Quins' perspective, I haven't seen much sign of the economic downturn – and I'm confident of strengthening our support base. Leicester are a well supported team, but we're basing our projections for the Christmas game on getting our own followers inside Twickenham."

Last season's Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester established a new attendance world record for a club game – Twickenham was packed to the rafters – but crowds for regular season fixtures rarely break the 20,000 barrier. However, most Premiership clubs have expansion plans in place, with Leicester leading the way. The Midlanders have just appointed contractors to begin work on a new stand that will take the Welford Road capacity to 24,000.

Paul Stridgeon, nine months into his career as a fitness coach with the Warrington Wolves rugby league team, will join England's back-room staff at the end of the current Super League season. A former international wrestler, Stridgeon made a sizeable impact during a five-year stint at Wasps before switching codes last December.

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