Monday 19 March 2018

Neil Francis: Pro12's American dream is a half-baked fantasy

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'Two roads diverged in a wood and I - I took the one less travelled by...' - Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken

I was unaware that the Pro12 stood at the junction, but last month we were told that our league would have to consider going down paths which would be radical - a course of action which would defibrillate this moribund league.

Martin Anayi language is no different from any other CEO of a sporting organisation: "Value for the stakeholders", "revenue streams", "our model", "television rights", "commercial partners" and "grow the brand."

Throw in a bit of a Gordon Gekko - look them all in the eye at the press conference - and suddenly "Yeah, this guy knows what he is talking about."

There is a realisation that the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 are way ahead of us in terms of revenues, particularly television revenue. Now we have to do something about it, and do it quickly.

A format change, new franchises and change the calendar - wow, a real game changer.

Two conferences seem plausible: fewer games, more quality because the games won't be played in the international windows and the stars will be playing in all their games outside of November and February/March.

News to Joe Schmidt; not sure if that will increase attendances or that you could ask Sky for more money for this.

Whipping boys

Some have sought to remove the Italian franchises from the Pro12 on the basis that they devalue the competition; as perennial whipping boys, they drag the standard down.

Some have suggested they be replaced by London Welsh and London Scottish. This suggested by people who have not the vaguest notion that the week before last London Welsh were in administration and were facing a liquidation. Amazing what passes for informed comment or insight.

The RFU sub-vent these clubs. Why would they let them join a foreign league? Was there an approach of any kind to these clubs?

Despite winning the British & Irish Cup last season, London Welsh and London Scottish are sh**e and you would be swapping a team of second-division exile whipping boys for the Italian whipping boys.

The commercial view would be that there are 60 million people living in Italy and eventually some of their commercial entities will start throwing money at their rugby teams, even if their TV companies won't.

Then there is the small matter of Italian international rugby withering on the vine as their core squad of players are deprived of meaningful competition.

The Six Nations, remember, pays most of the bills. Might be just an idea to hang on to the Italians!

Where to next? Why not go to the Yanks and work a deal with them? When the news hit about including an American franchise in the Pro12, the first thought was 'how is this feasible?'.

Anayi surely was teasing out an idea. Could it work? How commercially viable would it be? What about the logistics and finance? Would they bring additional value to the competition?

I suppose it is commendable to explore all avenues when it comes to improving your competition but at no stage - not now, not in ten years, not in the next century - will an American franchise be playing in the Pro12 - if there is a Pro12 in those time brackets.

Rugby in the States is campus-based in the big universities and colleges. It is seen as a 'frat' game and is essentially amateur.

It is one of the great anomalies in rugby that at the World Cup you can have amateurs playing on the same field as regimented and highly conditioned professional athletes. Not only is there a huge disparity in fitness and skill, it is just bloody dangerous. All these amateur teams need to become professional.

Last year the first step towards redress was actioned by the founder of pro rugby of America. Douglas Schoninger founded and funded the PRO of America.

Initially Schoninger looked for about a dozen franchises but for logistical, insurance, time factor and ground unavailability reasons, only five teams entered: Denver Stampede, Ohio Aviators, Sacramento Express, San Diego Breakers and San Francisco Rush.

Twelve games in a 16-week season, the season starting on April 17 and finishing on July 31 (it just does not fit in with our season). Next year there is the possibility of a New York, Boston, Philadelphia and a Canadian franchise and maybe one or two others. Players are paid from $20,000-35,000 from tier 1 to tier 2. That doesn't even keep you in protein shakes for the year.

In the formative years of any professional or commercial venture revenues are critical.

There are no sponsors and the league is funded by Schoninger alone. Schoninger has said he will give it three years to get some traction.

A squad of 30 players being paid $30,000 for the season with all other costs included will cost you $2m per season. If they hope to get 10 teams next season then that is $20m per season and for three seasons $60m - one hell of an outlay in such a high-risk venture. It is unclear whether World Rugby has made any contribution at this stage.

The big issue is once again the TV boys. Time Warner Sports and One World Sports have agreed deals but you are talking about the price of a two-bedroom duplex in Ballybrack.

Pina Coladas

AOL have also streamed the series online but nobody will be sipping Pina Coladas in Sandy Lane on the back of that either.

If the league survives, the blue touch paper of a major television deal might eventually come about. UFC did manage it in a short period of time. I look into my crystal ball and I see a slow burn - 15-20 years, maybe more.

Schoninger and Anayi may have been in touch with each other but any meeting would have been premature in the extreme.

I have watched several games online. The crowds are sparse and the standard now is at AIL levels.

If the Denver Stampede came to the RDS they would lose by 100 points or so. If a composite team or super franchise came to Europe they would be kicked from Treviso to Galway and back again, with or without television sponsorship.

The Yanks have turned their men's and women's Sevens teams into seriously competitive outfits in a short space of time. I can't see them doing the same with a fifteens franchise that would have to travel around the British and Irish Isles and Italy.

There are about 20 reasons why an American franchise addition won't work.

Sometimes ambition, prescience and thinking out loud are praise worthy characteristics but there will not be an American franchise in the Pro12 any time soon.

Whipping boys are not good for ratings apparently. The road not taken indeed.

Irish Independent

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