Last weekend when England were threatening to throw away a lead against Wales before ultimately winning the Six Nations, something potentially much more significant for the game of rugby was happening 3,500 miles away.
Under the clear blue skies of New Jersey, London Irish and Saracens played the first ever Premiership game on foreign soil. Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty explained when the fixture was first announced: “There are ambitious plans to grow the game in the States, and this is the latest stage in that strategy.”
Other sports have experimented with playing matches abroad, some have shied away from it. Coming in the other direction over the Atlantic Ocean has been the NFL and NBA, both of which have enjoyed sell-out success in London, thus proving that taking league games ‘on the road’ can work.
However when the idea of a ’39th game’ was floated by the Premier League seven years ago it was dead in the water almost immediately such was the strength of opposition from domestic fans.
Rugby fans are less diametrically opposed to trying new things as their football equivalents – understanding a need for the much smaller sport to grow and gain exposure if it is to thrive long term.
With that background, London Irish were able to take their Premiership meeting with Saracens from the Madejski to New Jersey where they played as the home team at the 25,000 capacity Red Bull Arena.
Unfortunately for them, despite the unfamiliar surroundings it was an all too familiar result; The bottom team in the league were beaten 26-16 by table-topping Saracens. However, for the wider good of rugby the result wasn’t all that important, the match was about selling rugby and thankfully for the Premiership it was a relatively open, competitive meeting for much of the 80 minutes.
“It’s always a challenge to get through the first one, but I think we’ve made a really good start,” said McCafferty after the game. “I hope the US sport public is falling more and more in love with rugby. We’re doing our part.”
The staging of Premiership matches on US soil (matches at the Red Bull Arena in 2017 and 2018 are planned) is just one avenue of attack for growing the sport in America.
Other promising signs for the game include the start of PRO Rugby, the first professional rugby competition in North America, which kicks off later this year.
Rugby Sevens makes it’s debut in the Olympics this summer which could greatly increase exposure on US soil, especially if the US men’s and women’s teams perform to their potential, which could see them leave Rio with medals.
New Zealand played United States in front of 61,500 people at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2014 and the world champions are making a return later this year. The All Blacks will take on Ireland at the same venue in November in a match promising to showcase the game at it’s highest level.
However, perhaps most significantly for the game was the recent announcement that a three-year deal has been struck with NBC. From next season the terrestrial broadcaster will screen a live Premiership match from each round of fixtures to around 85 million US households. Many more games will be broadcast on NBC’s digital platform. “This new agreement with NBC Sports Group is an historic milestone for us,” McCafferty said when it was announced. “It takes the Aviva Premiership Rugby brand to a bigger audience than we have ever had in the US.”
Across the weekend comparisons were drawn between rugby coming to the US and the NFL to the UK. However the initial success in terms of attendance were worlds apart. The NFL managed to sell out Wembley on it’s first visit in 2007 and in 2015 staged three matches which all saw capacity crowds. So successful has the International Series been that there is a growing consensus that it is only a matter of time before a US team takes up permanent residence in London. In contrast, the official attendance at the Red Bull Arena on Saturday was 14,811, and it appeared less.
“I think the appetite is there in the US. We just need to be careful and systematic in how we build things,” said McCafferty. “We felt if we did around 50 per cent capacity in the first year then that was a good start.”
Where the Premiership is at a disadvantage to NFL is that American Football has been screened in the UK for decades, long enough to build a significant fan base desperate to see the game played competitively in the flesh. The Premiership will be hoping that the NBC deal, which is in addition to BT Sport screening games in the UK, has the same affect, particularly if they are to fulfil their stated ambition of selling out the Red Bull Arena by 2018.
“The news on signing the agreement with NBC is unbelievable news for us. It set the right kind of platform for club rugby in the US and we can use that as a springboard for growth,” said McCafferty.
Alex Goode, who starred in Saracens’ win with 19 points, told the Independent: “I think we know it’s not going to be as big as American Football or Basketball overnight but it’s brilliant to come over and have this game and hopefully showcase the continuity of rugby and how physical it can be.”
Speaking about the NBC deal, the England international said: “I think it’s brilliant if you can get more people watching it, seeing it and if you can attract a certain small percentage that’s great.”
Saracens captain Brad Barritt was also optimistic that there is an appetite for the game in the US where rugby is the fastest growing team game in terms of participation.
“I think rugby is a vastly growing sport in the US and I think with the emergence of their PRO Rugby league it’s got to be a great thing to see top quality Premiership rugby in the States.
“Hopefully over the course of the next few seasons rugby can have a similar impact to the NFL has had in London and attract big audiences.”
Chris Wyles, with 54 caps for The Eagles, was one of the poster boys for this fixture and with his American background perhaps better placed than most to understand how tough the task ahead is for the game.
“Obviously this announcement of NBC showing rugby here in the US and the Olympics coming this year there are some exciting things,” he told the Independent.
“But you look at how long it took the MLS here to become what it became. I think it (the push for growth) was pretty much after the 1994 World Cup and it’s only now really coming into it’s stride. It’s not easy. It’s a not a done deal.”
A major issue for the staging of future Premiership fixtures in the US is that London Irish were supposed to be a constant presence. However, it is looking increasingly likely that the club will be relegated, even more so after Saracens inflicted on them their fifth consecutive defeat. There appears to be an understanding that Saracens, a club that has always shown willingness to try new things, will pick up the baton to ensure there is continuity in the fixture. However it means the marketing team behind next year’s match will have to rethink the tie-in with an impending St Patrick’s Day that was used to sell the match on Saturday.
The timing of the fixture, when the Six Nations remains ongoing and teams are stripped of their star assets, is also a concern. Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall expressed a desire for a change after seeing his side win.
“An occasion like this deserves us to be able to come here with our full squad.
“I do feel it needs to be organised at a time of the year when all the stars you can have here are going to be here.
“We had a lot who played very well for England against Wales. I think America would love to see the likes of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Billy Vunipola.”
Conceding that timing was difficult, McCafferty explained that the Premiership were keen to avoid clashing with the NFL, which rules out playing the fixture any earlier. Meanwhile playing later would mean having to navigate the “intensity” of the end of the season, a situation that means the fixture will almost certainly be played at around the same date, at least next year.
While it is clear there are many obstacles and challenges if rugby is to thrive in America, there is a real sense of cautious optimism among those involved.
“Is it a seminal moment?,” said McCafferty following the first ever game in the US. “I don’t know, I’ll tell you in 12 months time based on how much progress we’ve made.”
BT Sport is the only place to watch top live matches from the Aviva Premiership, European Rugby Champions Cup and European Rugby Challenge Cup. From March 15th, BT Sport will also show ‘March Madness’ – a knockout tournament featuring the top 68 college basketball teams in the US – exclusively live on BT Sport ESPN.