Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Realistic Look At The Pro12 & Professional 7s

A couple of big items regarding more professional rugby came out this week. First the Pro12 once again re-emphasized their interest in expanding into the United States. That was matched with a statement from Bob Latham saying that the U.S. would be interested in discussions. Second, news broke that Grand Prix Rugby, the extremely controversial group with exclusive sanctioning to professional 7s in this country, had that exclusive sanctioning renewed until 2024. Since both of these items are complex we'd like to chat about them.

First up is the Pro12 news. It should come as no surprise that the Pro12 is interested in the United States. The competition is struggling mightily to keep up with the Premiership and Top 14. They didn't have a single team make the quarterfinals of the European Champions Cup and most of the time Irish teams typically dominate leaving interest stagnant in places like Italy. In terms of television coverage the Pro12 deal lacks significantly behind those in England and France and if it stays that way they will continue to see an exodus of players from the league. The bottom line is that they are desperate to change the equation. 

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America seems like an obvious answer to that problem. After all, we have 300 million plus people and a sporting television network bigger than anything else in the world. The Pro12 isn't the first to think that coming to America is going to help fuel their coffers. However, that really isn't true. To their credit the Pro12 realizes that simply coming into the U.S. isn't going to give them money and it's not going to get them a deal with the likes of ESPN. They did note that local television contracts in the U.S. can be lucrative in and of themselves and if the team were to land one of those it could help. 

While we don't want to throw cold water on the whole idea (we'd love it if it could work) we want to at least spell out some of the obstacles that make it very difficult to see the Pro12 making it work in the United States. Setting aside the logistics of travel, whether fans will turn out to support a team that is run by folks from Ireland and features mostly Irish players, etc., let's talk about television. It's good the Pro12 realizes that ESPN isn't likely (it would be interesting to see if NBCSN is paying for the Premiership next season and if so, how much) an option but maybe if they had a team in New York they could get a YES contract. However, there is a problem. Why would a local network like YES, or a Root Sports affiliate pay for a team that has the rest of its competition overseas, especially for a niche sport? Just ask sports like lacrosse that have a U.S. league about getting on local television period, let alone getting paid for it. It simply does not happen. If the Pro12 wants to come for America for television money it isn't going to happen. 

Again, it would be cool and a benefit for a Pro12 team to come over to the States but it simply isn't feasible at the moment. Should folks in the United States have talks with the Pro12 to see if it's possible, like Latham was suggesting? Absolutely. Talking never hurts but fans shouldn't get their hopes up. 

Next up is Grand Prix Rugby and William Tatham. For those that aren't aware back in 2005 when U.S.A. Rugby was in a money crunch they sold the rights for professional rugby to Tatham for several hundred thousand dollars (they also sold the rights to USA 7s around the same time). There has never been any evidence that Tatham is going to do something with those rights. There are clauses in the contract that say he has to show he is making progress, that is why every couple of years you see him come out with a release saying the tournament was going to happen. At one point they even named a stadium and sold tickets but to be honest it was a bit of a bad situation because it was never going to happen.  Even just a few weeks ago Tatham came out with another announcement. Now we know that is probably because he was up for renewal on his sanctioning. No one really knows the motivations for Tatham holding on to the rights but the most likely scenario is that he is waiting for someone to buy him out of an unreasonable amount of money.

Pretty much what this means is that no one in the U.S. can host a tournament with a prize larger than $10,000. That has to be very disappointing for those wanting to see professional 7s in this country, ourselves included. But if we are being realistic, there are real questions whether professional 7s is even viable.

Outside of a tournament in Sri Lanka every year there is no professional 7s tournament around the world. That's surprising, especially given that places like New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, and others have had strong 7s programs for awhile. Sure, there have been World Club 7s tournaments but nothing that would pay players to be full-time athletes and nothing held around the world. There are a couple of big obstacles that are also present in the United States. First and foremost is that 7s tournaments are events. You go because you can have a good time with your friends and tune in for your home team (i.e. the U.S.) and some of the top teams in the world. Anyone who has been to Vegas can show you that outside of U.S. matches and the big teams everyone goes out for a drink when it's Portugal vs. Uruguay.

So take that the States. Sure, folks in San Diego will cheer on their team but if a tournament is in San Diego and it's Portland against Houston there isn't going to be that much interest and it's hard to see fans paying $30 to then pay $10 a go for beer to watch their home team play the equivalent of one match over two days. It's very unlikely any atmosphere would be like Vegas, the scale would be far too expensive. Additionally, it's hard to get behind a team if they only play at home once. That means attendance won't be that high. Yes, total player salaries won't be as high as a 15s team but if you only have one home date that doesn't really matter. Vegas may get big crowds and the CRC does decently but it's very hard to see more than a few thousand fans turning out in each city for a tournament and if you only have say 8 tournaments a year that is not a lot of income.

One of the popular arguments put out there is that 7s appeals better to fans on television. There isn't really evidence to back that up (but it is exciting, don't get us wrong). Compound that with finding air time for a whole tournament on a big network, forget about it. Even in Vegas they only get limited time on NBCSN and NBC and those networks are partners with the tournament. Making 7s a product for television has always been a problem, that is why Super 7s was tried out a few years ago.

The bottom line is this--professional 7s, at least in a successful form, is probably not going to happen in the United States or anywhere in the world. The World Sevens Series will continue to be successful because it has a great format. The Vegas 7s will continue to grow in popularity but have city based teams in the United States that are profitable is a long-shot. So does it suck that Tatham can essentially hold these rights hostage? Absolutely but if professional 7s isn't likely to happen anyways it's hard to get angry at U.S.A. Rugby for taking in some extra money. If someone had a feasible plan to make professional 7s possible then there is more room to be upset but it doesn't look like it's happening.

This shouldn't all be a downer. Look at the steps professional rugby has made in the United States over the last few years. We just had 120 players compete in a professional competition for the first time. That's incredible. It's only going to continue to grow but it's important to grow smart and to be realistic about what can be accomplished.


  1. There will actually be a "pro" 7s circuit somewhere in the world in 2017. Where? Australia and it will be a womens circuit to start with the mens to come online in 2018. Or at least according to the ARU. It will be a 8-10 team University based circuit. We'll see.

    1. Unfortunately USA cut their own throuat stupidly selling their rights to Tatham so that screw that for USA. Unfortunate indeed. Considiering Rugby 7s would make a great betting game. Not that I condone gambling...because I don't. But in the scheme of things. A grand prix event across the USA would pull millions per event. Sports betting is one way to get it rolling in the's just a thought.

      As for pro 12? You need strong teams and the USA lack those at this time. No track records? No Rugby stars....yet. and then you have is it only East Coast and what about ProRugby?

    2. Fairly sure back when Tatham first bought the sanctioning rights he mentioned a tie in with sports betting. I agree that betting would be a good fit not that I am a betting man myself.

      Refarding the Pro12 or Super Rugby for that matter. There is a need for strength. Something Augustin Pichot mentioned about Argentina. They need a deeper playing pool in Super Rugby. So, there's an opportunity to move a number Argentine players in each.

      As for ProRugbt. I hope it is able to build into its own and takes it own form. Potentially speaking if it grows it could actually look to align with either of these competitions. Or both.

  2. There is no reason PRO Rugby cannot exist solely as our pro domestic league, similar to the Currie Cup in South Africa, Top 14 in France, the Mitre 10 Cup in New Zealand, or the Premiership in England. All of those countries also have teams in other competitions, like say, Super Rugby!

    It's possible, and highly desirable, to have multiple levels of professionalism. PRO could run its competition while we also have West Coast teams in Super Rugby and East Coast teams in European competitions. The key is to develop our player pool to where it can support such an infrastructure. The development I have seen in the last 10 years from when I started playing in high school to today is astronomical. Just think about the status of the game in another 10 years.

  3. On a side note, 7s doesn't seem marketable other than for one-off events like Vegas and the CRC.

  4. Professional 7s as a bolt-on to a 15s league could work. Premiership 7s is one such example. PRO Rugby athletes could compete in a tournament in the 15s off-season. A 7s season isn't viable as a stand-alone product but it might be possible integrated with 15s.

  5. I say that you contunue with pro rugby but make a super rugby team on the west coast and on the east coast make a pro12 AND a premiership team with pro rugby feeding players to all three of the teams and you do a tournament each summer for the best pro team of the 3