An instant hit in 2021, Hull KR’s Craven Streat will be back bigger and better this season.
It was a small sample – just three games in fact – but the matchday fan zone was a resounding success from the time the doors opened ahead of the Super League clash with the Wigan Warriors in August.
Craven Streat got Rovers fans in the mood and Tony Smith’s side tapped into that energy to make it a special night under the lights.
The party continued after the match as supporters enjoyed festive drinks a stone’s throw from the pitch.
It’s a unique gaming experience in this country, but carnival atmospheres are commonplace around games in North America.
The brainchild of KR marketing manager Craig Franklin, the idea received support from general manager Paul Lakin on his first day back at the club.
“He came from a few different places,” Franklin told Hull Live.
“First I went to an unnamed rugby ground when I was doing a vegetarian phase and the only options were meat pies and sausage rolls.
“I thought as a sport we needed to do better than that and offer more variety, keeping in mind that people’s lifestyles and diets are changing.
“Another part is that I love American sports and I’m lucky to have been in the NBA, NFL and ice hockey.
“The NFL, in particular, does a really good job with tailgate parties. Sometimes it’s more enjoyable than the game.
“Then we obviously saw what Toronto did, how successful it was and how awesome it looked on TV.
“All of those things combined with a big empty space in the stadium bowl and all the down time with Covid to think about those things, it was the perfect combination to form the idea.
“Paul has been really supportive from day one and has been a big driving force in making this happen in terms of getting the funds available to prepare the area for use as a catering village.”
Rugby league fans know what they like and they have certainly embraced the new concept.
Franklin admits the club were surprised by the reaction from fans.
“I remember the first game, it was open and there was a queue of fans at the turnstiles almost knocking on the door to get in,” he said.
“We opened the doors and it was packed almost immediately. It had only been open for half an hour and we already thought we had a real hit on our hands.
“If anything, we were a little surprised by his popularity from the start.”
As with everything, there were start-up issues when the club launched the business.
Queues were longer than fans or the club would have liked, while space was limited as Craven Streat filled up.
With that in mind – as well as the challenges that winter poses – KR has made the necessary changes to improve the experience.
“We always saw 21 as a test and learn exercise,” Franklin added.
“We took advantage of the off-season to create more space there.
“We have invested in a larger Carling beer tent so there is more interior cover for the winter months. We have invested in interior heaters for this marquee.
“There will be more food vendors and an improved surface for supporters which will be drier.
“It was so popular last year that we almost couldn’t keep up with the demand. We kind of recognized that and did some things to address it so it was a little less crowded, the queues will be much smaller and there will be a greater variety of food and drink.
“In a good way, it was just a real party from the first minute. That’s what contributed to its success because it’s a great meeting place for fans from all stands.
“We were pleasantly surprised at how popular he was from the first minute.”
A minor frustration for fans was that they were unable to stay at Craven Streat to watch the game.
Franklin explained that taking the necessary steps to make it a viewing area would be problematic.
“It would require more investment because currently it’s not a banked area, so as soon as you have two or three standing against the fence, you won’t be able to see anything,” he said.
“We would also need to invest in crush barriers up front because if we have 500 people in there and they all rush in after a last minute tryout, the fence that’s there wouldn’t be able to hold that.
“It’s not on our radar for 2022, but as we understand the bigger picture of the stadium it might be something we can look into.
“To do that, it would have to be recognized as a viewing area that has a lot of health and safety considerations.”
When the project was announced last March, it was unclear how long Craven Streat would stay.
After an extremely promising start, Franklin’s message is that the fan zone is here to stay.
“The south end will be last on the list for any stadium redevelopment project,” he said.
“We certainly think it will last a few more years. With that in mind, we have invested more in it this year.
“Having said that, we wanted to tar it but it was very, very expensive. You look at that investment thinking that one day it might be ripped up and something else put there and think it wasn’t worth it. .
“But then we invested in improving the area with a more cost-effective alternative method. Where we can invest smartly in the area to improve the experience, which we can pick up and move elsewhere as we go. we need space for something else, we will.
“But it’s still a while.”
Craven Streat has certainly caught the eye of the wider rugby league audience since his debut on Sky Sports cameras.
As well as providing advice to other Super League clubs, Rovers have received praise from some unlikely sources.
“Wakefield joined us for a game to see how we handle it operationally,” Franklin said.
“It’s something they were considering and Castleford have been in touch to look into something similar.
“It’s funny how far it’s gone really. Sometimes you talk to people you wouldn’t expect to have knowledge of rugby league or knowledge of the details of what’s going on, but they all name Craven Streat and say how good it looks and want to come down and check it out.
“He transcended the sport.”
Fans will return to Craven Streat this Sunday when the Huddersfield Giants visit for a pre-season friendly.
Attendance will be modest this weekend, but Franklin hopes the fan zone will help draw more spectators through the doors as the year progresses.
“My ambition for the region is that we can market the games as one day or full evening events where you are not just paying for 80 minutes of rugby, you are paying for a music/food and drink festival in the part of your money ticket,” he said.
“It makes it a much more attractive proposition for fans and families to come spend the day with us.
“It’s an investment in an experience that keeps the current support base more engaged and happier, but it will also be easier to attract new supporters to the stadium knowing it’s a full day for their money and not just a rugby league game.”