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Friday, January 25, 2013

Thanks But No Thanks To Super Rugby

By Ted Hardy

The big talk around the water cooler yesterday revolved around comments made by SANZAR boss Greg Peters in regards to possible expansion of Super Rugby into North America.

Super Rugby is, without doubt, one of the top professional competitions on the planet and the concept is not new to fans of American rugby. Any fan of rugby can appreciate and enjoy the standard of play in Super Rugby and the continued high-performance of the SANZAR nations at the international level is astounding. There have been many great points made over the years as to how they can benefit American rugby.

SANZAR has been talking about bringing Super Rugby to America for many years and has made repeated comments on the subject. The fact of the matter is they need new markets. Super Rugby is on a downward trend and when their TV contract ends in the next couple of years, their dwindling fan base may cost them a fair amount of TV revenue. 

Since 2006, Super Rugby attendance figures have dropped steadily. In 2006, South Africa averaged about 34,000 fans per game, Australia around 24,000, and New Zealand around 22,000. As of 2012, South African teams continue to be the best draw of the bunch averaging roughly 28,000 per game. Australia follows with 20,000 and New Zealand has dropped to around 16,000 per game. Television viewing numbers of Super Rugby has remained strong, but with a limited number of possible viewers Super Rugby may have reached their apex in South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

New Zealand’s population is around 4.4 million people, which would place them behind 25 US states in population size. The population of both California and Texas are higher than Australia. In total, the SANZAR nations represent around 76 million people. Recent data places the population of the United States at 315 million. Canada has another 34 million.
Now you can see why they need America. Even with an already saturated sports market, America has room for growth. It is obvious that they see packed sports stadiums across the land and salivate at tapping into our vast sports-mad society. Make no bones about it; SANZAR and Super Rugby only want America for one reason… money.

If SANZAR wasn’t worried about money, then why haven’t they tried to expand Super Rugby into Argentina? Argentina already has ties to SANZAR and has more players ready for professional level rugby than North America. They could easily fill a franchise that would be competitive and logistically better than a team on the West Coast.

SANZAR boss Peters said it best in a recent comment to the Australian, “Ultimately it all comes down to what is in the best interests of the three SANZAR parties."

That’s right… the three SANZAR parties. He didn’t say one word about what is in the best interest of Japan, Canada, or the USA. That is because, in their minds, we are not part of the discussion. They will choose when they are ready for North America, not the other way around. After all, they have our best interests in mind.

No, wait. They don’t.

Think about it. Super Rugby currently sits at 15 teams. South Africa is ready to add one more team to bring the number to 16 teams. Super Rugby plans are to expand to 18 total teams and have Japan and America in mind for the two additional franchises.

Therefore, North America gets one team. With a roster of approximately 30 players, that means only about 10-15 Americans get a job in Super Rugby. Another 5-10 will go to Canadian players and you can bet the remaining roster spots are reserved for current Super Rugby players that they will use to “bolster” the team since they have concerns about our ability to compete.
Of the roster spots reserved for Americans, it is probably a safe bet that Super Rugby officials will request players that are already playing professionally so that their standards are met. Therefore, it isn’t likely to create many new professional opportunities for American rugby players.

How is that helping the development of rugby in North America?

Reliable sources state that USA Rugby and Rugby Canada have identified approximately 100-120 players of professional caliber between the two unions. This identification process has taken place in preparation for professional rugby. That number will only grow in the coming years with recent high-performance developments and the Olympics drawing and/or keeping high-caliber athletes to rugby.

What will one Super Rugby team accomplish towards helping those players? Again, Super Rugby is not concerned with anything outside of improving their negotiating advantage with TV broadcasters.

If they want to saturate the American sports market, placing one team on the West Coast is not going to get the job done. The team’s schedule will be a logistical nightmare involving extensive travel. The likelihood of the team getting many home matches is remote. With a 16 game Super Rugby schedule, there is a great chance that the team will be relegated to playing a series of mini-tours or games in “neutral” locations.

The logistics alone point towards putting two teams in Japan as a better option for Super Rugby. SANZAR boss Peters also noted player welfare as being a concern for Super Rugby. If they were truly concerned about player welfare, then North America would not even be a consideration for Super Rugby.

If they want to break into North America, they are going to need an entire conference full of teams in the market and not just one or even four teams, but more like 8-10. Even then, the idea of a multi-country competition, spanning half the globe, will be a tough sell to sports fans that are used to continental bragging rights.

Which brings us to the next point. It has been said many times over… the American rugby enthusiast only makes up a fraction of the audience that it will take to sustain professional rugby in America. Casual rugby fans and the average American sports fan have to fill in the void. The average American sports fan is the wild card and the largest segment of the puzzle. Studies show that sports fans are very open to the idea of watching and following rugby. There is plenty of evidence to support the notion that rugby is growing in America. This demographic is game altering. They also care very little about international competitions other than the Olympics.

This is where Super Rugby has already failed if they are looking at expansion as early as 2016. They assume that everyone will immediately fall in love with their competition because it is some of the highest-level rugby played on the planet. It really is… no argument there. However, the average American sports fan feeds on domestic rivalries and a Crusaders/Hurricanes battle will not get any attention unless ESPN tells them to watch it. If SANZAR was interested in winning over North America, they should have been giving away content to outlets like ESPN years ago to test the market. Taking one step further, they should have already played a few games on American soil.

While SANZAR has commented on expansion into America, USA Rugby has remained relatively mum on the subject. Years ago, when the idea was bandied about, it received a fairly warm reception from USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville as they were keen to keep their options open at a time where professional prospects were still way off. This time around… not so much.

Yesterday Melville commented on twitter:

“Interesting to hear we are on Super Rugby’s radar – but are they on ours?”

The tides have seemingly changed as USA Rugby is growing at an exponential rate and attendance at events continues to trend upward. With at least two separate groups currently working on building a domestic professional rugby competition, the glamour of having a Super Rugby franchise on the West Coast has lost its luster. The same can be said of placing a East Coast team in a European competition.

At this point, focusing on getting a domestic competition standing on a sound foundation has to be of the utmost importance for North America. It is the way forward to sustainable and concrete growth of rugby on levels in both the United States and Canada. With that in mind, it is hard to imagine a scenario where there was a Super Rugby franchise in America at the same time as a newborn domestic professional rugby competition. 

That is not to say that there isn’t room for some outside of the box thinking and collaboration. Such as a Heineken Cup style tournament with teams from Super Rugby, North America, and Japan played prior to the fall international window. That will provide Super Rugby a much-coveted outlet into North America without undermining efforts to build professional rugby in the USA and Canada. Yesterday, someone commented on placing a combined PNC squad in Hawaii. On the other side of the pond, a North American team or two could participate in the Heineken Cup.

Ideas, such as those mentioned and others, have potential for all parties involved. Note: “All Parties Involved”… not just SANZAR. This is no longer a one-way street. The time has come where SANZAR needs North America more than we need them. That is called leverage. Pray that it gets used to the benefit of all levels of the game in North America.


  1. BS. Super League in America would do wonders for the sport here. Would you rather wait for the various "fake" pro leagues to pop up here, Ted?

    1. Jason, I love your stuff. It's a different take on our sport in this country and necessary. However, SuperRugby (SANZAR) wants nothing but our market share.

      They know that USAR and RugbyCanada plan to (or have already, depends on who you talk to) sanction a joint professional competition. They know that the plan is to start small and grow gradually in order to lay a good foundation. They know the start date is 2-3 years away. That plan is not too different from the model SANZAR used to become successful.

      A professional competition will do wonders for the sport in North America if done correctly. There is no doubt about that. However, SANZAR putting a SuperRugby franchise here will not benefit us whatsoever.

  2. Sorry, but I don't think it would. If they were prepared to place more teams here and commit to only allowing North American players on the rosters, then it could make a difference. But that isn't going to happen. One team playing in a competition on the other side of the world, with a cross-section of players is not going to make any sort of explosion or garner fan interest beyond die hard rugby fans.

  3. i think this article hit it right on the head. hey a few years ago i was the same way thinking that this would be amazing news to have a super rugby team here. but then the problem comes up as to what about the rest of the country? how is thistaping into the american market when your isolating 3/4 of the country? the only way is to place 5-6 more teams through out the usa and maybe 2-3 in canada. now you (super rugby) just made things worse and have spent more $ then you can bring in by subsidising (yes i know i spelled that word wrong)north american teams for having to travel to NZ-AUS-SA.how how can a fan base support a team when they will only see them for a fraction of the season due to all the time spent traveling not just amongst them selfs but other teams? the difference between baseball teams playing XX amount of games on the road and rugby team is baseball has 50-60 games per team , rugby only has maybe 12-18 games. half of which will only be played at home. i agree with the end of maybe having super rugby teams come over and play a HC style here. the same discussion we are all having by calling a pro league here "fake" is the same thing soccer people where talking about 20-30 years ago. sure the nasl failed but look at what there is now, mls. at one point for many years people kept saying that it would fail, its a rag tag leauge, now look at it. in a few years it will over take hockey in ranking of sports leauges. and i wouldnt be shocked in 10 years if they average more people then the NBA. and sit right behind NFL-MLB. again we can and should not judge any attempt at a "fake leauge" until we try it. how sanzar can help us is having more teams like the lions tour NA. that would help us out and there teams. why not take the nfl approach and play a game or two over sea's and have that part as there tv rights deal. play a game in hawaii if it helps with money.

  4. This is nothing more then an illusion designed to make US rugby players think USA Rugby is actually growing the game. All of this talk is laughable...pure humor. Has anyone attended a so called top tier rugby match in a large US city ? Nobody is there but family. This topic gets lots of hits for rugby websites but its a joke. The College 7s ?
    Each team must buy a certain amount of tickets in other words you pay them to play and they tell NBC look how many tickets we sold. The only place where people buy tickets for domestic rugby, and only for big matches, is SLC/Provo.

    1. Who let Brian Lowe on this page???

      The USA vs Italy match had over 17,000 fans in Houston Texas of all places. That's a heck of a lot of family members "Brian".

      Would an American based competition have that many at every match... no, far from it. but with proper marketing and games being broadcast on National television Im guessing they could pull in "BYU vs Ark State" numbers and maybe get 7,000 to 8,000 fans per match once the league has been up and running for a few years. And I agree with Ted and after thinking about it some more I dont think SANZAR putting 1 team in the US would work. Americans want to watch New York vs Boston and San Francisco vs Seattle...etc. and they want to see Americans in those uniforms, not a team half made up of foreigners playing against a tiny city from New Zealand or South Africa... I just dont think that will work anymore. An American based competition is the way to go for now. I do think down the line that an American division in SANZAR might be able to hold more water. Having 5 or 6 teams in North & South America and then our winners move on to a playoff system with SANZAR seems a little more plausible.... maybe.

  5. For all of the haters who say there will never be professional rugby in the US.... they remind me of the people saying there would never be professional soccer.

  6. I wonder who's going to win the Six Nations championship this year. All the teams are so good it really is a toss up. I'm watching every game this year but the problem is they aren't all on TV. Hopefully the Six Nations live stream will be showing them. Go Wales!

    1. England will win this year. All match will be on Universal Sports but tape delayed.

  7. I agree with Ted. North America needs it's own professional competition. Instead of being in Super Rugby there should be a World Club Championship with the winners of the Heineken Cup, Super Rugby, The Top League and APRC all playing each other every few years.

  8. I have to admit, it would be better to try to have a go with our own league in the US, than to be a token presence in Super Rugby. A couple of years ago, I would have loved to see a Super Rugby Franchise here in California, with North American Players. After further reflection, I think we need to use the MLS model(sorry to bring soccer into this) Yeah, there were growing pains, but attendance and the number of teams in MLS have grown, and it has really been a shot in the arm for USA Soccer. It won't be easy, but I agree, we need to develop our own Can/Am league.

  9. For American domestic rugby, we need our own league. To get the Eagles to be competitive internationally, we need players playing the best in the world regularly, however.

    There's no reason we can't have both, honestly. What harm would come of having an all-star team in the west coast somewhere that plays in Super Rugby while simultaneously developing our own pro league?

    The MLS model doesn't develop the best players through MLS competition. Most of the USA's best soccer players play (or developed the early stages of their professional careers) overseas, or benefit *heavily* from the number of international soccer matches played in a year - a number that far exceeds the number of international rugby matches.

    1. It's also missed that, of the players who *do* develop in MLS, that there are a decent number international-quality players in MLS (mostly from Latin American countries) to aid said development - even though that development isn't of European quality. A North American domestic rugby competition isn't likely to draw enough international-quality players, comparatively.

  10. It's a start. Anyone who thinks they would stop at one team is thinking ahead. And Super Rugby sits on top of everyone's domestic leagues as a development stage for national sides. The higher level of competition is necessary if either Canada or the US wants to seriously compete at an international level.

    A MLS model is just more of the same people playing at the same level.

    I also don't understand the comment about Super Rugby not thniking about Canada or the US? Really? does the NFL hand out franchises to just anyone? Or any other professional sport?

    We need some more long term thinking. One Super Rugby team in NA will create an outlet for our players. When that team is having selection problems because they are overloaded with talent then a 2nd franchise can be put in place.

    To be the best you need to compete with the best. Time to get away from the non profit structures we are all running and focussing on business development.

  11. Sorry but I am a fan of Ruby because of Super Rugby! I have traveled from the US to see matches around the world. So MR. Hardy I may only be one person but it has changed me and would do well in America if people in the press would get behind it! You are part of the problem not the solution. Americans who play rugby or were interested (like myself) would embrace Super Rugby.