After what has widely been hailed as the finest Rugby World Cup yet, in spite of the hosts failing to make it out of the pool stages, players and fans of rugby union will drift back to the club game, with the Aviva Premiership now back in full swing.
And interest in the domestic game is likely to increase further in the coming months in light of Premiership rugby’s growing attempt to court our American cousins, a move which could help to cement rugby union’s position as the main challenger to football (or soccer) across the world.
London Irish and Premiership Rugby recently announced a ground breaking agreement to hold the first ever overseas domestic fixture, which will see the Reading-based side take on reigning champions Saracens in New York on 12th March 2016. The significance of such a move cannot be understated, as rugby union – often derided for its ‘old-boy’ culture and sense of tradition – has finally taken a huge leap into the modern sporting era. This is a forward-thinking decision, which will stoke the passions of millions of Americans, in a region where rugby is the fastest-growing team sport.
There will be those who question such a move. Let us not forget that the ill-fated ‘39th Game’ was a step too far for even the money-making might of the Premier League. Overall however, the reaction has been extremely positive and ‘getting one over’ on the round-ball game is simply an added sweetener for us egg-chasers. Unlike the painstaking proposals made by the Premier League, London Irish and Premier Rugby have sprung something of a surprise with the new arrangement, and they will be confident that the staging of the match itself will run just as smoothly, no doubt.
This really does smack of an intelligent marketing ploy executed to the highest order. American interest in rugby union has grown rapidly since Sevens was named as an Olympic sport in time for Rio 2016, with Team USA pumping cash into the game as part of their continual hunt for medal success. Those who have shown talent in NFL have been drafted in to take up the sport and rugby union is now the fastest-growing team game in the country. As such, the sport has huge potential in terms of funding and its playing pool. A disappointing Rugby World Cup aside – where the Eagles failed to pick up a single point, including a 64-0 thumping to South Africa – appetite for the game is high and USA has become the key market for the sport.
Ties with the American game had already been secured prior to the announcement of the match, with 2012 Premiership champions Harlequins touring Philadelphia during pre-season, culminating in a friendly with the national side as part of their preparations for the World Cup. A partnership deal has since been signed with USA Rugby, as the domestic game attempts to wake a sleeping giant.
The fixture between Irish and Sarries itself will benefit from being in the perfect time and place. The 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena in New York is the setting for the game, in a city with a large Irish contingent who will be expected to turn out in force. Held the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, a raucous atmosphere is almost guaranteed, whilst the 2016 Six Nations sees Ireland face Italy – another nation with a large migrant population in New York – on the same day.
Taking all of these factors in consideration, it seems the stars have aligned to create a huge opportunity for Premiership Rugby, the two clubs, and the sport in general to showcase themselves to a sporting behemoth.
USA Rugby has also just announced plans for the creation of a professional league in April 2016, just one month after Irish and Saracens battle it out. Similar plans are in place to create Argentina’s first professional club side, which will be admitted into the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 15, a move which echoes the region’s admission into the Rugby Championship, which in turn has allowed the Pumas to play giants New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at least twice a season. The positives of such exposure were clear during the World Cup, with Argentina thrashing Ireland on their way to the semi-finals. USA will no doubt be hoping that a professional structure will have a similar impact on their performances four years from now. Meanwhile, the staging of other sports on foreign soil provides a precedent for success, most notably the NFL’s yearly visits to Wembley, which have sparked huge demand for American Football in the UK.
As Premiership rugby looks for new ways to compete financially with the French Top 14, and as rugby union steps ever further into professionalism, now is the perfect time to engage the Americans like never before. Rio 2016 will provide the sport with a global platform to showcase its skills, strengths and values and there is a hankering for the USA to be awarded the rights to stage their first Rugby World Cup, after Japan in 2019. London Irish and Saracens have pulled out all the stops to capitalize on such an opportunity and to encourage the growth of the sport into new markets. This is a campaign which all brands, sporting or not, can take note of.
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