The NFL may soon help bring pro rugby to North America.
The NFL Network and Premier Rugby Limited, the parent company of The Aviva Rugby Premiership in England, will soon partner in an initiative which, if successful, has the potential to result in the creation of North America's own professional rugby league.
Over the past year, there has been an increasing amount of buzz within the rugby community concerning the potential of a U.S. based professional rugby league. As of this morning—when news of the partnership broke in The Guardian—it is clear that the market opportunities have caught the attention of the NFL Network; a group whose executives are constantly on the hunt for compelling content to feed their massive audience.
The feasibility test will be a match. It is set to be played in Gillette Stadium near Boston on August 10, and it will be called the Independence Cup. The contest would see the Premiership's London Irish face off against a team of American athletes; a team whose recruitment and rugby training is set to take place in the interim. The American-based squad would likely be supplemented by experienced overseas players not currently under contract. Another match—possibly against a different Aviva Premiership Rugby team—could be played a week later in England
My own exclusive Bleacher Report interviews have previously gauged the interest levels of both of the world's internationally structured professional rugby competitions—The RaboDirect Pro12 and Super Rugby—in regards to North American expansion.
In talking to me, Super Rugby's CEO Greg Peters was clear that he saw potential in the huge North American commercial market.
What we see is that the introduction of Rugby Sevens into the Olympics has been a great platform for the growth of the game generally. Not for a moment would I suggest that either Canada or the United States would be new rugby markets, because both countries have been playing for years...
Super Rugby is about tribalism, so what we have to do is assess the community interest on the part of rugby fans, and potential rugby fans, in some of these new markets.
That notion of assessing potential interest seems to be exactly what the NFL and Premier Rugby have in mind.
This new partnership may well have begun a race to establish sporting and content rights against Super Rugby, an organization whose traditional media partner has been FOX.
According to Tom Dart, who broke the story in The Guardian, the new deal involves a group of American investors who are seeking to coordinate the player recruitment and logistical challenges necessary to create a professional player pool.
The promoters and producers, Minnesota-based RugbyLaw, would, upon completion of a successful test series, look for investors to supply the tens of millions of dollars needed to establish a string of franchises on the American East Coast.
Such a condensed regional approach would have many advantages; including easy access for potential media partners, as well as reduced travel costs for teams.
George Robertson of RugbyLaw spoke in The Guardian about the demands of setting up such a competition.
We would need to swiftly identify and develop 15 then 30 then 100 international elite level rugby union XV's players from the graduating NCAA Division One athletes and with NFL or CFL players who wish to have another contact football career option. All they require is the appropriate respect paid to their ability and professional grade coaching. We will provide both.
The richest resource America can present to the world of rugby union will be the thousands of pro-level athletes currently not playing rugby union - the application of a well-thought-out system to find them, identify them, and then coach them.
There is no need to re-invent the wheel in how to find elite American rugby union talent - America is already the undisputed global leader in professional contact football with the NFL and NCAA - we will simply implement the same system starting with a combine.
Organizing a team of 22 rugby players to play in the initial New England match would be job one, but if that task can be achieved, Mr. Robertson's British partners are sure there will be a huge demand for ticket sales.
Organizers at Premier Rugby believe that the London Irish brand has the potential to be a huge draw in the New England area, as their Communications Director Paul Morgan explained to Bleacher Report.
Premier Rugby is thrilled to be a part of such a potentially exciting partnership and believes that the London Irish brand will be of huge interest in the historic New England region.
We are at the early stages of this venture; however, we are keenly interested to gauge the appeal of our product in new markets. We believe these events, which have the potential to reach huge audiences both live and on television, could serve as a good step in gauging such interest in America.
Mr. Morgan also confirmed that Premier Rugby would have more comments on this new initiative in the coming days.
So how successful could such a venture realistically be?
Rugby observers in North America and around the world will be watching this very carefully. Past such initiatives such as the Grand Prix Sevens—a highly publicized private tournament—have also held the promise bringing rugby professionalism to North American sports and media markets, before collapsing under the weight of financing and logistics.
Furthermore, it is unclear how much raw American talent is to be included in this exhibition series, and how successful such an effort would be. The English Premiership represents one of the highest standards of rugby in the world, and it is difficult to believe that any quickly assembled group of athletes – let alone players with limited rugby experience – could reach that standard on such short notice.
Still, most would agree that the basic elements for the success of such a scheme exist.
Elite player training for Canadian Football League (CFL), NFL and professional rugby teams has become so similar in recent years that several athletes have successfully crossed over between the two sports.
Hayden Smith of the New York Jets crossed over into the NFL after a successful rugby career in the English Premiership, and both sports routinely draw from talent across the Pacific Island nations.
Most agree that a sufficient crop of talent exists. The recruits for such an American professional league would almost certainly come—initially—from the ranks of collegiate athletes who have failed to make it in professional football. All of the established athletes with elite rugby training would already be within the USA National Team player pool, a group that is unlikely to be made available for such an experimental venture.
How USA Rugby would interact with such a potential enterprise is a big question and Bleacher Report was able to reach CEO Nigel Melville for comment.
The organizers of this game have been talking about this for some time. The Premiership club wants a credible team to play against and, as far as we are aware, the (American) team will be composed of professional players from overseas and a few local players that will be identified as potential rugby players. We will continue to discuss this game with the organizers.
The process of rapidly identifying, contracting, financing and training a group of athletes with little or no rugby experience is a task that even the most optimistic observer will find daunting; yet, it is the potential behind this venture that will have sports fans on both sides of the Atlantic buzzing.
If the massive amount of money necessary to start up such an enterprise really begins to flow, North American sports fans could soon find themselves tuning into the NFL network to watch their very own professional rugby league; a product all involved in this venture are betting they will love.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations for this story were obtained first-hand.
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