NFL knows US professional rugby union could be a very good deal indeed
The latest attempt to launch a professional rugby union tournament in the US relies on a simple premise: the country has thousands of elite-level rugby players. They just don't know it yet.
In any given year there are about 15,000 seniors playing American football at college. Only 1.7% will make it to the NFL, according to figures from 2011. That leaves thousands of exceptional but unwanted young players facing the end of their athletic careers, even before taking into account those who join up with NFL franchises, only to be later cut from rosters. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that it will be possible to persuade a few hundred from that talent pool to spend a summer learning a superficially-similar sport that offers the last chance of a professional contract. Especially if they know that the NFL is watching their progress.
Nor does it require a great leap of imagination to suppose that a few dozen among them will prove – in addition to the strength, speed and stamina honed during four years at university training facilities that are often far better than anything professional sports clubs in Europe can boast.
But can 15 or so be found in under three months, ?
It is a task worthy of a reality television series, and it will require money, determination, organization and elite-level coaching. In short, old-world rugby savvy laced with a healthy dose of American "can-do" spirit. And the thesis that mental and physical skills are rapidly transferable from one violent contact sport to another will need to be proven quickly.
If a league gets off the ground as soon as 2014, players will be recruited via combines – large-scale trials – and through the development of a scouting network with the help of coaches at leading colleges who can recommend players with potential who are unlikely to be drafted by the . As for the sprinkling of stardust required to attract spectators and media attention, Major League Soccer has shown that a move to North America is appealing to players approaching the end of their careers, some of whom are prepared to take less money than is on offer in Europe in order to live in a glamorous city such as New York. The same goes for coaches.
A firm US-based path towards professional rugby would also attract young players from other rugby-playing nations. They could move to America without fearing their career ambitions would suffer, pursue permanent residency and potentially represent the US national team one day.
'Think big, start big'
The scheme is the brainchild of two US-based promoters, George Robertson and Michael Clements. They formed a company called RugbyLaw and have been in negotiations with potential partners for months. With the attention-grabbing game at Gillette Stadium and a return match potentially taking place at Twickenham later in August, RugbyLaw's proposed National Rugby Football League seems to have a strong head-start over a rival plan, .
The vision: think big, start big. Robertson and Clements believe that the prudent, slow start made by MLS since its formation in 1996 has doomed soccer to limited growth and appeal in the US. They feel that Americans will only embrace a new competition if it is high-grade right from the start and that fans will not have the patience to wait a decade or more for a league to become credible, as was the case with MLS.
In this view, the planned six-team league in NFL stadiums along the East Coast needs to be privately-run: capitalism, not the Corinthian spirit, is the way to grow a sport. Governing bodies lack the ambition, energy, international focus and business intelligence to expand leagues; look at how rapidly the Premier League developed in England after the Football Association and Football League were essentially outmanoeuvered by the clubs.
This seems to be a recipe for discord between a governing body and clubs, as has been the case in English rugby. Nigel Melville, the head of USA Rugby, has some concerns but is cautiously supportive of the idea. A league's failure would be a significant setback to the sport in north America. On the other hand, it could grow rugby rapidly and considerably improve the standard of the national team.
Robertson is steadfast in his belief that XV is the most likely route to profit, rather than , because NBC Sports is increasing its coverage of the code. The XV version of the game more closely resembles American football.
To work, the RugbyLaw scheme needs to find investors willing to sink tens of millions of dollars into the project. It is a tall order but the involvement of the NFL could prove highly significant. The NFL Network will televise the match at Gillette Stadium, exposing mainstream American football fans to rugby and letting it piggy-back on to the financial power, marketing muscle and cultural cachet of the nation's most popular sport. The potential for sharing facilities, swapping players and giving fans something to watch during the long NFL offseason is obvious. The organisers hope that NFL owners such as Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots will see the London Irish match, and buy into the league as a way of generating new events to fill their stadiums.
"NFL and Gillette Stadium is [like the Beatles and] the Ed Sullivan show … a total game-changer," Clements said.
'An interesting dimension'
The dream of an American professional league has long been talked about among fans. But the International Rugby Board (IRB), the sport's global governing body, is also becoming enthusiastic about gaining a firm foothold in such a vast and wealthy country. If a professional lacrosse league can exist in the US, why not a tournament for the world's third-most popular team sport?
The IRB chief executive, Brett Gosper, said last month: "What is good is that there are forces in the US at the moment that realize a local major professional North American league would be an interesting dimension. There is a belief that it would do more to spur the growth in the country than making a World Cup quarter-final.
"It would drive very high commercial revenues through broadcast [agreements], but I don't think they would be ready for a World Cup yet. The sooner they are, it would be exciting for a number of reasons. Not only because of the amount of money it would earn for the game but because it's great to see it in a different context and that's what the World Cup is for."
Steve Tew, chief executive of New Zealand Rugby Union, told Reuters that in the future, southern-hemisphere countries are certain to form a tournament involving the US. He said: "Inevitably you will see a professional rugby competition on the west coast of the States including SANZAR countries."
New Zealand cricket's governing body is part of a joint-venture aiming to launch a Twenty20 league in the US, but that has been pushed back from this summer to next year at the earliest, in an illustration of the challenges sports face in raising enough money and finding suitable facilities to launch in America. The potential of the marketplace may be huge, but the competition is fierce.
Producing enough good American players to form a league will be futile unless sufficient numbers of fans can be enticed to watch. But there is some encouraging evidence at grass-roots level. USA Rugby claims to have 90,000 members. And the perception that rugby is less likely to cause concussions than American football could result in more young people taking up the sport at football's expense.
If only a small percentage of the country's American football fans can be exposed to rugby and persuaded that it is a similarly compelling and aggressive sport – with the added intrigue of no long stoppages, no helmets or pads – then it might have a chance to thrive during the spring and summer. "After football season they need a fix. Rugby will deliver that," Clements said.
Last June, – a larger attendance than the US soccer team drew for a game against Canada at the same venue last January. That US-record rugby crowd in the football-obsessed state of Texas could be surpassed when the Eagles return to Houston on 8 June, to face Ireland. Executives at Reliant Stadium, the 72,000-capacity home of the Houston Texans NFL franchise, had shown interest in hosting the match.
Robertson said: "An elite professional rugby union league is the backbone and now required for successful national-side play. We are the pathway, likely the only one, for the USA to move from Tier II to Tier I IRB status – it is simply a matter of structure, investment, and a professional capability.
"It seems the world has lost track or forgotten the main truth of the NFL – it is the son of rugby union."