Thursday, May 31, 2018

Opinion: Wales-South Africa Match Not Helpful For American Rugby

This weekend Washington, D.C. will play host to Wales and South Africa. It's a match that comes with a lot of risk in terms of folks showing up. If they do then it shows that America is a place for high-level teams to come in and make some money for both themselves and their hosts. If they don't it will be just another in a string of disappointing turnouts not involving the All Blacks. If people don't show up in no way will this weekend have helped American rugby. In fact it will be just the opposite.

One of the major problems is that folks putting on these events have a "go big or go home" mentality. They think that if it's not the top teams than no one will show up. That may be true but bringing in the top teams also means spending a lot of money. Wales and South Africa are each getting $750k just for showing up. Maybe the right strategy for getting more Americans involved in rugby isn't to go for home runs every time but to get people on base and slowly work them home.

For example, this weekend the England Counties team is touring Romania. The French Barbarians are in Georgia. There are also teams like the New Zealand Heartland XV (who visited the U.S. several years ago) and the RFU Championship XV. None of them are going to draw in thousands of fans but none of them also take $750k to lure here either.

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Maybe the right approach is to invite one of these invitational sides over to not necessarily take on the Eagles but to tour against other sides. The England Counties team has done this in Canada previously where they played teams like the BC Bears and Canada 'A.' That was always difficult to pull off in the U.S. because of A) geography, and B) the lack of a built in fanbase. The U.S. has always been spread out. You can't really camp yourself somewhere, like a Vancouver, and be able to play three teams within a bus ride. Additionally, only recently now that there is MLR are their existing fanbases to turn out.

That last point is important. In perfect honesty in some locations it's locals turning out to support their local MLR team in a bigger proportion than rugby folks turning out. It is their introduction to rugby. They don't really care about international rugby yet. They care about the Seawolves or the Legion or the SaberCats because they represent their home town. However, if their team scheduled a friendly match in the middle of the season against a team like the England Counties or New Zealand Heartland XV than it would be an introduction to international rugby. Spark that curiosity and watch them become more committed to watching the Eagles and watching tournaments like the Six Nations and The Rugby Championship. Eventually, after enough interest has been piqued and fanbases have grown, you'll have American rugby fans that were only introduced to the sport through their local team traveling to see teams like Wales and South Africa fight it out in Washington, D.C.

If the promoter is trying to make money it seems smarter to try and take a low risk effort like bringing over England Counties and splitting gate revenue with an MLR team that paying over a million dollars to bring in two teams that aren't even fielding their top players. This weekend's match reportedly needs 27,000 tickets sold to break even. If the England Counties played five MLR teams and each drew in 3,000 fans that's 15,000 which in reality is not too different from 27,000 but you've done it without the huge financial risk. However, as mentioned above. You take a low risk effort and first and then a few years down the road paying out $1.5 million combined to two teams might not be as risky because now you have potentially more fans to fill the stadium.

Circling back to the idea that this weekend doesn't really help American rugby on the pitch. There won't be a single American involved over the weekend. As far as we know, and maybe we missed it, neither team has even putting on a playing or coaching clinic for local fans. In terms of improving American rugby on the pitch this does nothing. The same couldn't be said of a tour from the England Counties or New Zealand Heartland XV. MLR sides would reasonably be expected to come out victorious but those touring teams would make them work. One of the biggest weaknesses of MLR this first year is that most teams only play eight regular season games. Throw in a friendly against a good opponent and it is going to make a difference. American players need to play high-level games in order to get better. Players getting high-level games translates to better Eagles and better Eagles could potentially translate into a World Cup win over a Tier I country. It worked for Japan.

We doubt that something like this will happen. Those with the money and decision making power prefer flash over efficiency. That's unlikely to change. After all, people with money like that will tell you they didn't make millions by going after small items, they made it by taking a risk and having it pay off. We're not sure that will work for growing rugby and we'd much rather see a sensible approach than a big gamble.

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