Ollie Phillips: Premiership clubs can boost bank accounts in USA but international rugby's sleeping giant needs multi-billionaire backer for real growth

 
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USA v New Zealand
Hunger for rugby: Chicago's 61,500 capacity Soldier Field has twice sold out for visits from the All Blacks (Source: Getty)

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania might not seem like an obvious place for Newcastle to play a home fixture against Saracens, but it’s easy to see why Premiership Rugby is continuing its excursions to North America.

The appetite and opportunity for rugby in America is real. It’s the fastest growing sport in the USA from schoolboy level upwards. More and more kids are playing it, more and more adults are taking an interest, more and more money is flowing into the game.

And with Americans becoming increasingly disillusioned with the NFL’s various concussion and political issues, rugby is perfectly positioned to steal some of the market if it can manage its own reputation.

Premiership Rugby is going over there to grab market share, get fans engaged in the English game and increase sales of shirts and TV rights.

Read more: Harlequins chasing the American dream: Why the Premiership rugby club is moving pre-season to California

I played in front of 30,000 to 40,000 people in Los Angeles and San Diego over six years ago on the World Rugby Sevens Series. The All Blacks have twice played in front of 61,500 people at Chicago’s Soldier Field, including that historic defeat to Ireland last year. These enormous numbers demonstrate the appetite that’s there.

But we’ve been talking about the potential of rugby in America for too long now. Nobody has cracked it yet in the US. Attempts to set up a professional league have fallen flat because you’re getting people entering the market who don’t necessarily understand the rugby product. They can see there’s a growth opportunity but they haven’t got the staying power or willingness to lose lots of money in the short term.

London Irish v Saracens - Aviva Premiership
London Irish and Saracens played a Premiership fixture in New Jersey last year (Source: Getty)

As with the NFL in London — a one-off spectacle when two big foreign teams come to town is a different proposition from a regular team. Have they got the appetite to sustain a constant flow of rugby?

There has been talk of setting up a North American-based franchise to take part in a European league but my honest opinion is they’d get spanked.

A fully fledged Canadian or American franchise would rally fans around a patriotic cause but it’s a careful balance because there’s only so long people will keep coming to watch their side get beat 50-0.

Furthermore, the American appetite demands the best players competing in the best leagues. That’s the standard they set.

The global fifteens game is now so developed that you’d need a multi-billionaire or corporation that is prepared to weather the storm for quite a while in order to cement and grow the product of professional rugby in North America.

Without that the danger is that all of the best professional players leave, that future Eagles captains like Saracens wing Chris Wyles will still have no choice but to up sticks for France or the UK where there’s the best quality of rugby and you get paid more money.

There needs to be some sort of protectionism at some point where they can cultivate that domestic product for themselves and get up to a level of being competitive.

For years now we’ve been waiting for this sleeping rugby giant to erupt. It needs somebody with long-term vision, financial backing and patience.

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