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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Reflections On The American Series

By Jake Frechette

Driving away from Talen Energy Stadium Saturday night, I talked with my brother about our reactions to the experience of being at the American Series match between Newcastle and Saracens. We were both hoping for more than the 6,712 people in attendance and a few more tries, but both pleased our kids had a lot of fun.

That attendance figure is still better than the crowds for the season-opener at Kingston park, the last two matches at AJ Bell stadium for Sale, and not far off the crowds for Worcester’s home matches. My brother asked me if I thought the match would be called a success by Premiership Rugby and the other partners involved.

On the one hand, AEG Rugby and Premiership Rugby have been clear that the American Series is a long-term investment extending beyond the match itself to community-building events. Having attended a coaching workshop in the build-up to the match, my impression of those events is entirely positive. Having my kids and nephews play flag rugby before the match (and some of them played at halftime, too), I saw a lot of young faces excited about rugby.

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Additionally, the Friends of the British Council scholarships for players and coaches to attend Premiership Rugby camps in England are a wonderful opportunity.

Those things are a kind of success. However, the crowd in the stadium also matters.

There is a sensation I cannot forget from the first Premiership Rugby match I attended way back in 1999. I was a college student spending a semester in Bath, and the first home match I could attend, I did. The other Americans in my cohort were uninterested, so I went alone. However, by the time the match kicked off, I was surrounded by Bath fans and did not feel alone. There was an energy, a real shared sense of experience that was new to me as a rugby fan. I had never watched a rugby match surrounded only by people who understand and are excited by the sport. I loved it.

Before the first professional rugby match I brought my whole family to—my wife and then three sons—I prepped them thoroughly by saying there was no guarantee there would be many people there, and there was no guarantee things would be that exciting. This was the USA Eagles against the New Zealand Maori, a match that did sell out and was tons of fun. That match showed my family all that going to a rugby match can be.

In observing the reactions of a non-rugby friend I’d cajoled into attending the match with his kids, they did not have that kind of experience.

The staff and players from both clubs and the league all seemed to be trying hard and doing well in their capacity as ambassadors. The real proof of success for Saturday will not be apparent until the next match in the American Series. My hope is that the next match is back in the Philadelphia area so we can see if the community-building built any community. Did the parents of flag rugby players enjoy Saturday enough to tell their friends to go next time? Did the coaches involved in clinic get enough out of the experience to point their players to the Aviva Premiership as the league to follow and support?

Rugby in America is growing, and the market for the sport is growing as well. How successful Saturday’s match was will be clear when next season’s American Series fixture is played. Generally, the idea that success should be measured later troubles me for a sport that has been slow to progress commercially. However, I can just look at the autographs of Titi Lamositele and Chris Wyles my kids came home with on Saturday and take comfort from those. 

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's not complicated. I think the All Blacks playing an annual test match in the US en route to Europe for the AIs would be the best way to raise the profile of the sport in the US and thereby pave the way for a successful and marketable Pro Rugby competition. From where I'm sitting, that's all that is really lacking in American rugby.

    I have no problem with British clubs visiting the US, of course, and am only saying that this method will never achieve the above objective. What exactly it will achieve in an already well-established rugby playing nation with substantial playing numbers, I'm not really sure, but neither is it of any concern to me.

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