While the mighty National Football League has been busy concluding a deal which will see American football played at Twickenham, the spiritual home of English rugby union, from next year, one top English rugby club is determined to ensure that the trans-Atlantic sports traffic is not all one way.
London Irish are heading for the US in March and will make history by staging their home Aviva Premiership game against Saracens at New York’s Red Bull Arena, the first league game to be played outside England.
The game will be played on the week of St Patrick’s Day, a holiday celebrated with as much enthusiasm in New York as Dublin, as US–based Irish diaspora go back to their roots. The city goes green as it hosts a massive St Patrick’s Day parade along Fifth Avenue and its legendary Irish pubs struggle to meet the demand for Guinness and whiskey.
It is, says London Irish chief executive Bob Casey, the perfect time to be taking a bite out of the Big Apple.
“This is something we have been wanting to do for some time and although others may have tried we are the first,” he told SportBusiness International. “We think of ourselves as a unique rugby club. We are an exiles club and have players of 12 different nationalities on our books.
“While I am sure we would have also been given a warm reception by the Irish communities in Boston or Chicago, there is a special link between the Irish and New York. I think we can connect with the local population in a way that might not work for others.”
New York is one of the world’s most competitive sports markets which means that Irish and Saracens will have to work hard to earn media attention and to fill the 25,000-seater Red Bull Arena. But with 2,500 tickets sold a week after becoming available and significant interest from UK-based fans in making the trip, Casey is hopeful that the game will sell out. In ddition to New York’s love of all things Irish, Saracens boasts a number of US Eagles players in their ranks which will give the local fans something to shout about.
It’s about raising awareness and growing the brand
“For us it is about raising awareness and growing the London Irish brand,” said Casey, a former captain of the club who is now part of the team working to take it into a new era after a change of ownership and senior management.
“We will be in New York for a full week and the players will be involved in open coaching clinics as well as media work. We hope to use the New York Jets training facility as they have used ours when they have played in the NFL International Series at Wembley. We are looking to shoot a documentary about our experience there.”
Casey said that the interests and opinions of home-based fans have been taken fully into consideration in planning the trans-Atlantic adventure.
Mark Beal, managing partner at Taylor Strategies, the New York-based sports communications, sponsorship and marketing company, knows the local sports market inside out and says that although the game may be a sell-out it won’t automatically make a huge long-term impact.
“Rugby in the US has a passionate fan base because so many people played at college,” he said. “They are likely to go to the game but in markets like New York sport can be there one minute and then it is gone and more or less forgotten until next time.
“We recently had legends cricket come to town and that got media coverage and sold tickets. But, like rugby, I am not sure whether there will be a lasting impact.
“In many ways the same is true of the US Open. Tennis is generally popular in this market for two weeks because it’s the biggest thing in town but then it goes away again. I’m not sure all those hundreds of thousands of people who go to the US Open avidly follow the Tours from week-to-week.”
While London Irish may be the best fit between the Aviva Premiership and the US sports market, the initiative has been driven by the league itself which has a strategic partnership with US Rugby to grow the game.
Premiership Rugby chief executive, Mark McCafferty, told SportBusiness International: “This has been three years in the planning and it is a lot harder than you might imagine to get the stars aligned and make it happen.
“The US is a very interesting market and we have been able to do this because of the support of US Rugby and of London Irish who have been willing to take the risk of moving a home game.
“We had to do it with a regular-season game because US audiences want the real thing and this game represents our first steps. However we will always be an English league.”
Viewed from some perspectives, US rugby is on a high. It claims to be the country’s fastest growing sport – although from a comparatively low base – and a professional league will launch in April next year. But the size of the task facing pro rugby was summed up by Fox Sports in its coverage of the launch of the new league.
“It will be the first time the sport has had a professional league in the region, where rugby is barely noticeable in a sporting landscape dominated by American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey,” the network reported.
Subject to success, London Irish will be back in New York for the next three years, providing an opportunity to grow some roots and win a place in the hearts of fans in a city which hosts the Jets, Giants, Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Rangers and Islanders, and is already home to some of the biggest names in world sports