Thursday 17 October 2019

Comment - Club rugby in danger of eating itself in race for cash

Competitions need to look at bigger picture if their expansion plans are to be successful

Rhys Ruddock leads the Leinster team out in front of a glut of empty seats for last Saturday’s PRO14 clash with Southern Kings – a game which officially attracted a crowd of 3,000 to
the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Photo: Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock leads the Leinster team out in front of a glut of empty seats for last Saturday’s PRO14 clash with Southern Kings – a game which officially attracted a crowd of 3,000 to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Photo: Richard Huggard/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Where will it end? That's the question somebody in the corridors of rugby power should be asking of the latest attempts to grow the game into new territories.

Has anyone sat down and worked out a best-case scenario for the next five years of the club game or is the expansion of the Premiership and Guinness PRO14 as scattergun and rushed as it appears to be?

Perhaps it should be no surprise that a sport that has been split into two codes for more than a century is going in such a siloed direction, with two competitions muscling into the same markets with little apparent concept of how much damage they can do to one another.

Due to their bigger audience, deeper competition and resultant whopper television deal, the Premiership are the stronger of the two competitions currently trying to grow but the PRO14 has stolen a march by actually moving into a new market.

Now it's there, the challenge is selling itself.

The equator, a couple of oceans and 13,150km stand between Port Elizabeth and Philadelphia but last Saturday the two cities shared a moment.

Both are frontier towns on European rugby's desperate drive for revenue in new territories and in both cases the local populace showed little or no interest in being a part of it at all.

On Saturday afternoon, Leinster became the first northern hemisphere team to play a Guinness PRO14 game on South African soil while later on Newcastle Falcons hosted Saracens in a home game on the east coast of the United States.

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According to the official attendances, 3,011 came to see the three-time European champions' southern hemisphere debut while 6,271 were supposed to have been at the game at the home of the Philadelphia Union MLS franchise.

Both looked generous in the extreme.

The key driver behind both fixtures taking place is revenue generation and the need for growth, but there appears to be little overall strategy behind where rugby chiefs want to end up.

The PRO14 are determined to establish an American franchise next season and a German professional team could also be on the cards, while the Premiership are also talking about breaking new ground.

The South Africans, determined to keep their number of professional teams intact while acknowledging the need to down-size Super Rugby in an attempt to halt the falling television audience, are casting a glance north and the addition of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings to the PRO14 may be followed by teams from the Rainbow nation joining the Anglo-Welsh Cup.

On Saturday, the sense of anti-climax when Leinster emerged to an empty stadium was palpable and the true challenge on the PRO14's hands was fully revealed.

A day later, Port Elizabeth played host to a club game that attracted 10,000 fans through the gate. The market is there, it just needs convincing.

For a competition with a major job on its hands, the PRO14 did itself few favours last weekend - leaving it to the short-staffed and overworked Kings to market the game when their chief concerns for the past month have been assembling a team that could take the field and ensuring that they have their visas in place to return to Europe next week.

The Port Elizabethans do not have a sponsor in place and their chief operations officer Charl Crous and highly-regarded coach Deon Davids have been fighting fires for months.

While tournament director David Jordan was in attendance last weekend, the PRO14 opted for a soft-launch approach ahead of their first set of fixtures and had little or no hand in promoting the game locally.

The fact of the matter is that people in this part of the world are at best vaguely aware of the competition and what it has to offer. The league needs to bridge that knowledge gap with boots on the ground.

Ask a Port Elizabethan to pick Leinster out on a map of the world and they'd be struggling and it's likely that many Irish rugby fans would struggle to find the home of the Southern Kings.

Garry Ringrose was in Cape Town to launch the tournament a couple of weeks ago, but the tournament organisers need to continue the hard sell to succeed.

If they need that to convince a rugby-mad nation, imagine what awaits them in the States where the game barely registers in the sports market.

Rugby remains very much a players' game in North America based on the passionate but limited club scene.

Attempts to form a professional league have failed thus far and the European professional leagues sense an opportunity.

Everyone wants a slice of the US television market but in their haste to break America, the Premiership and PRO14 are in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture.

Two tournaments entering the same market in different cities and on different television networks, competing for the same shallow pool of local players seems like a good way to confuse people.

There are logistical issues, playing games in the Bloemfontein summer has the locals here in South Africa scratching their heads and when you throw in the east coast winter things get complicated further.

The need to grow revenues appears absolute, but someone needs to step back from all of this and ask the question posed at the beginning of this piece.

What should the club rugby scene look like in five years' time? In 10 years' time? When will America be ready for professional teams and what about Germany?

How do we grow competitions into non-traditional rugby markets without diluting tournaments which, in the PRO14's case in particular, are already on built on shaky foundations.


Nobody, it appears, is asking these questions as the game hits new frontiers with gusto.

The French Top 14 is self-sufficient thanks to a huge television deal and billionaire benefactors, but given the zest with which the PRO14 and the Premiership seem intent to grow, perhaps they need to look closer to home at one another.

A British and Irish competition with two South African teams operating in two conferences might have a chance of succeeding in new territories and could even turn the heads of the bigger franchises in the Rainbow nation. Then, you could go into America from a position of strength.

Instead, the siloed approach of two rival leagues eyeing up new markets continues and they are in danger of cannibalising one another.

Expansion, in theory, is a good idea and the PRO14's South African experiment can in time be a success. But the league organisers need to show some patience and consider how they are going to succeed in their new markets once they're there.

Otherwise we might have to get used to the banks of empty seats.

Irish Independent

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