Pro12 aims to go west in American expansion

While all eyes have been glued to the opening two rounds of Six Nations action, the Pro12 has been working quietly to expand its reach all the way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Americas. Plans have been drawn up to include one US franchise and another in Canada in a brand new league dubbed the Guinness Atlantic Rugby Championship. The new league is scheduled to kick off in time for season 2018-19, provided all the parts are in place.

Scotlands Richie Gray and Kieran Low, right, in action against Canada at the BMO Stadium in Toronto in 2014. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS
Scotlands Richie Gray and Kieran Low, right, in action against Canada at the BMO Stadium in Toronto in 2014. Picture: Craig Watson/SNS

When Scotland were beating Ireland on the opening weekend of the championship, the Pro12 boss Martin Anayi was in Houston, Texas, the favoured place for the USA arm of the operation due to its warm location, catching up with interested parties and scouting out locations. The fact that the Super Bowl was on in Houston that very weekend was surely no coincidence; after all you have to keep one eye on the opposition.

However the situation remains fluid, with talk of one former international fronting an Irish consortium who want a franchise in New York; there’s also talk that Harlequins, who have a minority stake in Rugby International Marketing (RIM), the marketing arm of USA Rugby, are interested in the franchise.

It is planned to home the Canadian franchise in Toronto, utilising the BMO Stadium – which currently houses Toronto FC – where Scotland’s rugby team played Canada in 2014.

It is open to the elements, the mercury drops below zero and generally stays there from December to February, but the stadium is due to be developed with a roof. Vancouver is scheduled to be an occasional back-up, although the West Coast city is a 12-hour flight from the UK, and further from Italy.

Two new additional teams would extend the Pro12 to 14 clubs and there are plans to split those 14 teams into two leagues, let’s call them A and B. Every team in the A League plays every other team in the A League twice each season, home and away, for 12 games. In addition they would play every team in the B League but only once, home or away, for an additional six matches. The teams in the B League obviously do the opposite. The regular season would consist of 18 games, four fewer than the current model.

The play-off structure would have an innovation adopted from the French Top 14, with the second and third-placed teams in each division playing off in a quarter-final for the right to play the top club in each division. The two semi-final winners then play in a grand final, so adding two extra post-season play-off matches and one extra weekend to the calendar.

The Pro12 is said to be offering a five-year licence, although Celtic Rugby Ltd retain 10 per cent of the ownership, and have specified a long list of requirements of any potential franchise owners which include:

l Major city backing, an essential requirement of sports franchises in North America

l The backing of the ruling body (ie USA Rugby and Rugby Canada)

l A 40-strong squad of professional players

l A suitable stadium

l A management team with the requisite experience

It is an interesting proposal and one that the Pro12 is pursuing aggressively in an effort to avoid becoming bit-part players in Europe, overshadowed and outbid for marquee players by the big spenders in the French and English leagues. However the English/French leagues have one drawback – they can’t expand because of the relegation/promotion issue that is integral to both the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 but would instantly alienate any prospective American investor.

The news will divide Pro12 fans who probably won’t be travelling to too many away games. They were promised that the twin Italian teams, in a nation of 60 million souls, would attract big money sponsors and big television audiences, neither of which has occurred.

Still, rugby is said to be the fastest growing sport in the US, which already boasts 450,000-odd players including women and children, and one collegiate match recently attracted a crowd of 24,000, a new record.

If you can get over the absurdity of flying 10,000 miles to play 160 minutes of club rugby, and the Pro12 will need a generous airline sponsor to get the Atlantic Championship off the ground in a very literal sense, then there are some obvious advantages to getting a toehold in the most lucrative sports market in the world, if also the most crowded.

One recent attempt by financier Doug Schoninger to kickstart professional rugby in the USA appears to have collapsed in acrimonious circumstances with claims of unpaid wages by the players, including ex-All Black Mils Muliaina.

Schoninger has a licence for one more season, although that looks unlikely to happen given the current problems, and even then his remit was for a domestic competition rather than a cross-border one.

However there were enough encouraging signs to suggest that a replacement domestic league won’t be far away.

It would sit below the Atlantic Championship for the time being, like the Eccellenza in Italy, but there is an obvious danger.

Should professional rugby take off in the US in a way that Martin Anayi and the rest of the Pro12 bosses hope and expect, at the first opportunity the North American franchises would be tempted to join a healthy, burgeoning domestic competition, abandoning their Celtic connections and those long-haul flights across the Atlantic.