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Sports Management
Jan Feb 2017 issue 129

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Leisure Management - Rugby Expo 2016


Rugby Expo 2016

While domestic growth is still a priority for those in charge of English rugby, the sport’s great and good were keen to highlight the opportunities in the US. Matthew Campelli reports

Matthew Campelli
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty said that making rugby a big sport in the US was the organisation’s “number one target” internationally
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty addressing the crowd
Coventry’s Ricoh Arena, home to Wasps, was the new venue for this year’s Rugby Expo conference

During the final few weeks of 2016 Coventry’s Ricoh Arena became a haven for the sport of rugby. Originally developed as a purpose-built football ground, the Ricoh is now very much a rugby-first venue thanks to its acquisition by Wasps in late-2014.

That new status was reflected when the stadium hosted the Rugby Expo conference on 3 and 4 November – the first of a three-exhibition deal it signed last year – and the rugby league Four Nations double-header between England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand on the following Saturday.

For Rugby Expo veterans, the move 100 miles north from Twickenham, the home of rugby in England, to the unfamiliar surroundings of the Ricoh Arena may have felt like a bit of a departure. The Ricoh is no doubt an impressive arena for a rugby union club, and was more than capable of hosting such an event, though.

Unfamiliar territory was somewhat a theme of the first day, with America and the merits of developing its rugby market dominating the discussions.

New York experiment
A Q&A with Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty kicked off proceedings, and his take on developments across the pond would have interested newly-instated World Rugby chair Bill Beaumont, who was absent due to ill health.

McCafferty spoke generally about the growth he thought the league could continue to make in terms of television deals, sponsorship and spectator numbers. But the US was highlighted as a key area of growth – indeed the nation was described as McCafferty’s “number one target”.

In March, Premiership Rugby took a Saracens and London Irish league fixture to New York in a bid to generate interest, particularly among the expatriates with ties to the latter. The match sold just over half the tickets for the 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena, and despite the demotion of London Irish from the league, McCafferty is optimistic inroads can be made.

His optimism, he said, stems from two factors. The first is the level of interest had in flagship international matches which have been staged in Chicago. When New Zealand defeated USA Rugby 74-6 in November 2014, more than 60,000 people came to watch. Similar numbers attended when Ireland avenged the US by beating the All Blacks in the Windy City in November.

McCafferty is also encouraged by the perceived decline of the National Football League in the States, and feels that rugby may be able to fill a gap.

NFL decline
He said the NFL had been having a hard time, and in terms of televised viewing figures he’d be right, with double-digit year-on-year declines. The sport is also suffering with an image problem with a number of ex-professionals expressing health concerns, particularly in terms of head damage.

McCafferty’s sentiments were echoed by a panel of chief executives who took the stage after his session. Heath Harvey, chief executive of domestic and European champion Saracens, commented that his contacts at Microsoft in Seattle were “blown away” by the inclusive grassroots nature of rugby compare to the “elitist” NFL.

Glasgow Warriors CEO Nathan Bombrys, who is an American, added that the “high scoring nature” of rugby would engage US sports fans. “If you look at participation sports in the US, it’s all about lacrosse and rugby. Everything else is struggling from a viewing perspective and participation perspective,” said Harvey. “NFL is having a hard time at the moment, and that creates a vacuum which we would all like to see rugby step in to.”

He added: “They contrast rugby with NFL, which is a very elitist sport where 160 guys go into a college football programme and 0.5 per cent of those athletes will leave college and work in the professional game and the others will get jettisoned to work in Starbucks or Costco.”

Harvey’s club has already dipped its toe in the water, with three international branded clubs, with one in Seattle. The club is also expected to play another regular season match in New York next March.

However, challenges remain. Of a country with a population 320m, there are only 115,000 registered rugby players with 2,588 clubs. That said, the USA Eagles, as they are known, are 17th in the World Rugby rankings although the team performed poorly at last year’s Rugby World Cup, losing all four games and coming bottom of a group that contained Japan, Samoa and Scotland.

USA Rugby League bid for the 2021 World Cup, and although the nation lost out to England, it looks likely that it will host the following tournament.

A festival of rugby like that could give the game a boost, but with almost 10 years until that happen there is much work to be done to cement the place of the game in the hearts of millions of Americans.

Originally published in Sports Management Jan Feb 2017 issue 129

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