Monday 24 June 2019

Irish involvement will be to the fore when Major League Rugby kicks off in the US


Gaelic Park in the Bronx will serve as the home of Rugby United New York when they belatedly join Major League Rugby next year, the new professional domestic competition in the US. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Gaelic Park in the Bronx will serve as the home of Rugby United New York when they belatedly join Major League Rugby next year, the new professional domestic competition in the US. Photo: Dáire Brennan/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Long ago, before phones went mobile and media developed a social engine, we went on a club tour of California. Out of a squad of 26, six of us were still in our teens. Nothing before or since has come remotely close to the jaw-dropping crack of those three weeks working our way up and down America's west coast.

Rugby wasn't always top of the agenda and match preparation - a haphazard enough exercise in those days - suffered accordingly. By the time we came up against the toughest team on the tour, the Golden Bears in San Francisco, we had become accustomed to the unbridled physicality of the American rugby player. This crowd, however, could play a bit as well.

Among the many stories recounted when we got home was the one about the Californian club who would have done a bit of damage in the stellar world we inhabited at the time: the Leinster Senior League.

Ever since, we have had more than a passing interest in the rugby affairs of that country and wondered how they could never get enough people on the same page, joining the dots to a game that suits them so well.

It was hardly a gob-smacker then when PRO Rugby, America's first attempt at a professional competition, failed last year just eight months after it started. Its owner, Doug Schoninger, claimed "serious issues with the cooperation and the enforcement of our agreement with USA Rugby", who in turn denied any such thing. It never caught on.

The next instalment however is just around the corner. Under new management and with a whole different set-up, MLR (Major League Rugby), has the appearance of a ship that might stay afloat longer than its predecessor. With teams in seven cities, it launches in April, and will be broadcast on CBS in a prime-time Saturday night slot.

If it seems unusual that the magnificent seven doesn't include New York, then it's because they had been busy trying to flag down the Pro12 bus when MLR was putting its kit on. And now that Pro12 has picked up passengers in South Africa, the NYC boys are gearing up with a few friendlies before joining the MLR proper next season.

There will be a fair amount of Irish interest in how they get on. Shane Horgan and Eddie O'Sullivan are involved in an advisory capacity in putting the show on the road. Initially they will play in the 3,500-capacity Gaelic Park in the Bronx. Of the 29 contracted players, five are Irish, with the prospect of another few to follow: Ross Deacon (ex-Kilkenny College), Jack Fitzpatrick (Gonzaga), Marcus Walsh, Dylan Fawsett and Dave Gannon (Blackrock) all played rep/pro or AIL rugby in Ireland before heading to North America. Fawsett and Fitzpatrick have been capped by the US and Canada respectively.

Moreover, the chairman and joint backer of Rugby United New York, as they are calling themselves for now, is a Limerick man who comes across less like Mourad Boudjellal and more like the Pied Piper. James Kennedy of the construction company MKG describes himself thus: "I was a bad player back in Munchin's and continued to be a bad player in America - a bad player with an accent, so you get away with more - so I've a passion for the game."

The process of investigating the viability of a Pro12 franchise in New York served to fuel that passion. He seems fairly sanguine about not being able to close that deal.

"A great idea but it wasn't the right fit - time and place," he says. "But through that I got access to data: playing numbers, participation numbers, demographic data that was like, 'Jesus Christ, this is ready, this is actually ready, and not the usual bar talk that we've been hearing forever, that the US is going to go.' The numbers say it's going to go, between the fall-off in NFL, the massive growth in High School rugby over the last 10 years, it's definitely ready."

Ultimately, the success of MLR will come down to satisfying three criteria: the quality of the rugby product; engagement of fans on site and online, including tv; and its relevance to American kids, i.e. a local feeder system.

A 2016 study carried out on behalf of USA Rugby concluded that there are 40 million rugby fans in America, of whom 13 million are deemed to be "passionate." To put this into perspective, however, rugby comes 14th in the hit parade - in between lacrosse and alpine skiing.

So, while rugby's growth is second only to soccer - basketball, baseball and American football, the report claims, are all losing ground - it's an uphill climb, and a chunk of that interest was ascribed to the Olympic buzz around Sevens. The tv picture needs to look good.

"It's amazing to get that deal given the [failed] history of PRO Rugby and the fact that there's no data on this league given it hasn't played yet," Kennedy says. "Getting a free and mainstream tv station to air your games at 9pm on a Saturday night is phenomenal - it's still hard to believe.

"That, coupled with the tv deals they've done in local markets in six of the other seven teams, means the reach-out number will be approximately 150 million households, and that's not factoring in New York. Once we come in next year that will go up to 200 million households. One of the biggest problems historically in America is not lack of rugby, but lack of access to good rugby on tv. This changes that. It's a massive deal."

We'll see. From a distance, we've always wondered why rugby in the US seemed to be aiming at a national competition when the country is so big you could start by nailing down one state and, if you got it right, still be self-sufficient with players and sponsors. Like California for example. Clearly Kennedy is sitting on massive numbers in the north-east, but back in 1980, as we flew out of LAX, there seemed to be enough of everything in that part of the world to make a pretty good solo run. This has all been a very long time coming.

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