Ever since the Pilgrim Fathers hosted their first karaoke session on board the Mayflower the USA has been seen as the land of opportunity and today is no different. There is an unseemly scramble within world rugby over the pavements of gold that are presumed to exist on the other side of the Atlantic.
Last year the Rugby Football Union invested what was said to be around £1.3 million for a 10 per cent stake in Rugby International Marketing (RIM), the profit making arm of USA Rugby. The Aviva Premiership is being broadcast by NBC this season although there was a question mark over whether money changed hands or it was done for publicity.
Saracens played London Irish in New York last season, attracting just 7,000 fans, two more Aviva ties are scheduled on USA soil and Ireland face the All Blacks at Chicago’s Soldier Field in November immediately after the Eagles play the New Zealand Maori. There is talk of a Super Rugby expansion into the USA... what’s another five thousand miles between friends?
Everyone wants a slice of the American sporting pie and Mark Dodson is no different. The SRU chief executive talked recently about a Pro12 franchise in the USA during an interview with the BBC.
“We’ve got to identify markets that matter and we have to be open-minded. To stay as we are isn’t really an option. It’s been out in the press that we will look at the eastern seaboard of North America to explore a new market that could provide a new team or two teams along with broadcast income. I think it’s something we have to do.”
Dodson’s thoughts were backed up Martin Anayi although the Pro12 chief executive fingered Houston and Vancouver as potential sites for a franchise rather than the North East of the USA where the weather mitigates against outdoor sport from November through to February. So either you brave the North East conditions or you endure longer flights to Houston, Atlanta or Vancouver, neither of which is going to thrill the players or the fans.
Dodson knows that the clock is ticking. French side Racing 92 already have a partnership with one club in Austin, Texas and only last week Toulon’s owner Mourad Boudjellal, never one to let a bandwagon go by without jumping on board, announced that he was kick starting RCT Miami with a view to join the existing PRO Rugby league in the USA.
Ignore the time travel and jet lag. Ignore the fact that the North East weather precludes any winter sport apart from sledging and ignore the fact that it makes no sense to fly many thousands of miles unless you attract many, many thousands of fans.
Ignore all the above because USA rugby already has a professional league in place, PRO Rugby, and more importantly it has exclusive rights to professional rugby for three years to 2018, with an option to extend to 2020. It is a single entity league, owned by New York financier Doug Schoninger and he doesn’t sound happy at the prospect of the Guinness Pro12 parking their tanks on his yard.
“It’s a matter of style,” said Shoninger from New York. “In America they would call the Pro12 announcement a ‘trial balloon’, which is a test of an unformed idea. I think the Pro12 should have waited until there was more solid information and facts. I think that Pro12 could have announced their ideas in a better way.
“I am taking it seriously because it is damaging to my brand. I have talked to many rugby unions and leagues and I wouldn’t necessarily say Pro12 adds the most value to the USA.”
The new US league’s top draw in the opening season was 3,400 but the opening tie also attracted 120,000 online viewers via Time Warner which are good numbers and overheads are low with most players earning around $30,000. The four-month spring/summer season from mid March to June means that PRO Rugby can and will expand into that cold North East corridor. They are talking to two Canadian cities and hope to add two more teams in the North East seaboard of the USA to give them an eight to ten team league.
You can understand this somewhat undignified gold rush from the Pro12 perspective but in terms of making the USA a player in world rugby, which appears to be entirely absent from Dodson’s agenda, their own domestic league is surely a better bet than one or two Pro12 franchises which would have to be staffed largely by foreigners just to be competitive.
Dodson and Anayi are caught uncomfortably between a rock and a hard place. They are being squeezed by the French/English clubs who cherry pick the brightest Pro12 stars on the back of television deals which dwarf the £12 million that the Pro12 gets so they need more money to save the league from becoming a feeder for the French and English. They can’t win, they get rotten tomatoes for indulging in USA franchise fantasies and brickbats for doing nothing while the Titanic slips slips beneath the waves. You have to commend their sense of adventure but is the USA really the panacea?
The whole fandango seems spurred by desperation and we have been here before. When Zebre and Treviso came on board Italy was touted as a huge market of 60 million souls but, it turns out, just 283 of them appear to follow the club game and sponsors are notable only by their absence. The Italian sides are now in danger of being shown the door.
“They believe in the same things we do,” Anayi said recently of American rugby, “which is, the only way for a tier-two nation to become a tier-one nation is through professional club rugby.”
The problem for Anayi and the Pro12 is that the USA already boasts a professional domestic league, small but growing organically and staffed largely by Americans.
“How does it [the Pro12 franchise] benefit our union?” asks Shoninger, and with good reason, but helping USA rugby simply isn’t the driver behind this venture.