Exclusive: Could European Pro Rugby Come to North America?

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Exclusive: Could European Pro Rugby Come to North America?
An exclusive interview with RaboDirect Pro 12 Director David Jordan.

Rugby union recently made headlines in North America when the Head of SANZAR, Greg Peters, commented publicly that his organization was weighing possible expansion of the Super 15 professional rugby competition to North America.

We are considering whether or not we will include new territories in Super Rugby and one of the factors we’ll be weighing up is their competitiveness.

Super Rugby in its present form is a pretty successful model … and we are not going to water it down. But we’d be derelict in our duty if we didn’t consider expanding into areas. The United States is a very big market and so is Japan and Asia generally. Ultimately it all comes down to what is in the best interests of the three SANZAR parties.

SANZAR is an alliance between South African, Australian and New Zealand rugby, and between them they run the southern hemisphere's two biggest rugby competitions; The Rugby Championship for international teams and the Super 15 as the hemisphere's elite professional competition.

Peters' comments in The Australian obviously created a great deal of excitement in world rugby, but left one very important question on the table.

If SANZAR was pondering a possible expansion to North America, what interest, if any, was there in such a move on the part of European leagues?

One league in particular, the RaboDirect Pro12, had already broken out of its traditional boundaries in the Celtic Nations of Scotland, Ireland and Wales and had expanded to Italy.

Is the idea of further North American expansion for the RaboDirect Pro 12 a realistic possibility?

To find out, we contacted the competition's Tournament Director Mr. David Jordan, who was generous enough to discuss the matter here, in this Bleacher Report exclusive.

That Mr. Jordan's league is highly successful both on and off the pitch is not in dispute. The PRO12 currently comprises a dozen teams spread across four independent rugby nations, nations which have begun to see the attendance of their pro teams rise substantially in recent years. He said of the league:

The PRO12 has provided all our clubs with a stable tournament in which to operate, with regular weekly matches. ERC’s tournament provides three premium home ties but this is not what sustains our clubs, it is the 11 home PRO12 matches that do that.

It is the PRO12 that provides our teams with a stable and sustainable season that has allowed many of our clubs to develop new stadia and to grow their audiences to the extent that Leinster can take Munster to the Aviva Stadium and command a crowd of 48,000 - also this season the Welsh Regions will be playing a round of PRO 12 matches as a double header in the Millennium Stadium, while hoping to get a crowd of in excess of 40,000.

We are just beyond the mid-point of our season and already our attendances across the PR012 are some 8% ahead of last season and we are on track to break the millionth fan going through our gates before the start of our play-off rounds. In terms of TV we now have seven live TV partners and some 85% of our matches are on TV. Our TV audience for this season will be well in excess of 12m viewers by the time we come to our play-off rounds and the growing world-wide interest in our tournament is such that it is now seen in over 85 countries.

This success has followed closely on the heels of the league's last expansion within Europe.

In the 2010-11 season the competition that had been previously known as the Magners League, began its first year with Italian participation; a moment of huge importance for the future of European rugby. Italy has since gone on to beat France in the past two RBS Six Nations campaigns, a development Mr. Jordan attributes to that expansion move:

As you rightly point out Celtic Rugby expanded its professional rugby union tournament to incorporate Italy three seasons ago.

The rationale behind this expansion was a recognition that Italy needed to be part of a competitive professional rugby environment in order to ensure that Italian Rugby, which participated in 6 Nations and European competition, remained competitive.

For example in 6 Nations, if Italy’s domestic rugby playing environment wasn’t sufficiently good enough to provide the Italian international team with quality players then it would be forever propping up the 6 Nations table and that would not be good competitively or commercially for the international game in Europe. It was clear that Italy ought to adopt the regional team model operated by the Celtic Nations, and so concentrate their better players into elite teams, rather than have their players spread across a semi-professional domestic league of 10 clubs.

Having agreed upon this strategy it was also obvious that if Italy adopted a regional team model it would be better if those teams played alongside the regional clubs of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The invitation for Italy to participate in the PRO12 was therefore more of a rugby decision than a commercial decision.

The lessons of this experience with Italy seem clear; the arrival of professional rugby to a developing nation can rapidly increase their competitiveness on the international stage. Surely, this is an example that North American unions would love to follow.

David Rogers/Getty Images
Since joining the RaboDirect Pro 12, Italy has now beaten France two years in a row. Can North American teams follow suit?

So what are the prospects of the RaboDirect Pro 12 making its way across the Atlantic?

In terms of further expansion, Celtic Rugby is somewhat constrained by the structure of the season in the Northern Hemisphere. Unlike our Southern counterparts the professional and international season in Europe is intertwined with club tournaments, international tournaments and tours. 

Our season is 40 weeks long, starting in September and ending in May. The PRO12 operates over 24 weekends, European-wide competition 9 weekends, the RBS Six Nations has 5 weekends, and there are 3 weekends for the November Tests. That is 44 weekends. To enable this all to happen, the PRO12 plays a few rounds on international weekends. The Welsh teams also play in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which is played during SIx Nations.

As such, we do not have the capacity to add more teams as there aren't the weekends to cope with that. As you are probably aware our clubs service four international teams, as well as "A" Sides and U20 sides. Our teams don’t have the player base to play anymore matches during internationals without reducing those teams to development sides for part of the season, and that is not commercially attractive.

Though depressing to North American fans, Mr. Jordan's point is well taken. The most recent expansion of the playing schedule for any of the Celtic Nations, the LV Anglo-Welsh Cup, has largely seen its matches become developing grounds a club's young talent; as most established international players are away on Six Nations duty.

When one stops to consider the myriad of non-league commitments that clubs in the RaboDirect Pro 12 have to contribute to, either in whole or in part, it is rather amazing that the competition continues to produce such a high standard of elite rugby.

Mr. Jordan did leave the door open to a more limited presence for his league overseas, but suggested that it was likely to take the form of one-off exhibition events.

If such a thing were to happen it would more likely be to play a match in a particular place just as Aviva Premiership side Saracens have attempted to do recently. The numbers would have to work of course, and be sufficiently up-weighted to counter the negative impact that comes from alienating your own fans by playing a home match somewhere else.

As already noted, expansion of the PRO12 tournament to add more teams from other countries is restricted by the structure of the season in Europe. In addition some of our own Unions may wish to increase the number of their professional sides should space allow rather than seek entrants from elsewhere.

And with that, North American fans who wonder if European rugby will ever come to their shores have their answer. 

Canada's DTH Van der Merwe (red) and the USA's Eric Fry (blue) already play professionally in Europe.

The RaboDirect Pro 12 is the one European competition not specifically tied to the interests of a single national union, unlike the national premierships in both England and France. So, as David Jordan and his league look to consolidate their position in Europe, North Americans seeking their own professional teams remain on the outside looking in.

Still, Mr. Jordan's positive work in Europe does hold important lessons for the North American audience. The inclusion of Italy within the ranks of true professionalism has clearly produced a rapid improvement in the quality of their performances internationally.

However, unlike Italy, who found their way into a professional competition based on their existing ties with other European nations, North Americans remain geographically isolated with relatively little leverage.

The one great pull factor, which might one day yet make professional rugby a reality here remains the enormous commercial and media markets available in North America and specifically in the United States.

So, while the RaboDirect Pro 12 continues to attract increasingly massive crowds across the breadth of Europe, many hopeful North Americans will now turn their eyes back to the Super 15, where it appears the dreams of expansion to our shores may yet still live on.

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all quoted material was collected firsthand.

To follow the author on Twitter, click on the link below.

 

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