Premiership Rugby in the USA: The British are coming! By James from @RugbySaracens

Premiership Rugby in the USA: The British are coming! By James from @RugbySaracens

Premiership Rugby’s decision to choose Philadelphia to found a new future for the sport in the US might be very apt.  However why are they organising the Newcastle Falcon’s Premiership home game against Saracens on Saturday 16 September a mere 3,500 miles from Kingston Park?  A conference call on Thursday brought together representatives of US and Premiership rugby to explain the new four-year deal for the ‘American Series’.

Saracens’ Chief Executive Heath Harvey and their inspirational South African hooker Schalk Brits were joined by Dan Lyle, Director of the Rugby Division of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), and Dominic Hayes, Premiership Rugby’s Commercial Director.
Former US international Lyle was appointed to his new role in April 2016 and has been busy ever since working to build a strategy to increase the reach of the sport into the world’s biggest emerging rugby market.  

Outlining in the call the reasons behind the deal announced in May 2017, Lyle said that the agreement between Premiership Rugby and AEG – the world’s leading sports and live entertainment company – and leading US broadcaster NBC Sports, will see Premiership Rugby stage regular season rugby matches in the US for at least the next four years under the title of the ‘American Series’.

The game is a central plank of the strategy to increase the growth of rugby union in the USA.  However, as Lyle stressed, it was “not just a game.”  It would be the spearhead for lots of integrated rugby related activity supported by Premiership Rugby and USA Rugby, bringing coaching, equipment, training clinics and other rugby opportunities to attract additional players of all ages and broaden interest in the game.  

Lyle said that Philadelphia had been chosen as the host city for 2017 to take advantage of its strong sporting tradition.  As the birthplace of US independence, it’s a great place to start a successful new venture.  Philadelphia is home to four professional sports teams, hundreds of college sports teams and clubs, national athletic competitions and more.  Other cities are also within USA Rugby’s strategic growth plans for rugby in the USA.  However, Lyle said they were keen to show commitment to Philadelphia for more than one game to help build on what they expect to be this year’s successful game and establish the event in the city’s sporting calendar.

Harvey said that ‘innovation was in the Saracens DNA’ and it wasn’t in the club’s nature to do the tried and tested.  Accepting the request from Premiership Rugby to return to the US to play a regular season game was a simple decision: it would help the league’s growth in the US, taking advantage of their position as one of England’s leading clubs and provide an additional development in the club’s brand in foreign sales markets.  

Brits said that ‘there was never a dull moment at Saracens’.  He said he was excited at the prospect of playing rugby for the club in Philadelphia. The travel time issue wasn’t a big deal in today’s professional rugby environment.  Getting the opportunity to travel to the USA, spending time helping with grassroots rugby events with the local community and getting to see some of the sights of the city (Schalk on the Rocky Steps!) would be great fun.

Lyle, Harvey and Hayes were all agreed that everyone had learnt from the 2016 experience of hosting the London Irish v Saracens game in 2016 at the Red Bull Arena just across the Hudson from New York.  The 2016 game had been a positive tentative initial step as the first ever Premiership Rugby regular season game to be staged outside the UK.  They have used the learning from that game to understand better the logistics of transporting two professional rugby sides to the USA and the requirements for a first-class experience for players and fans. Planning for the 2017 game had started earlier than it had for the previous game, with the clubs having already recced training and accommodation options and check out the magnificent the Talen Energy Stadium, the home of the Philadelphia Union football side.

The broadcaster partnership was very important the success of this game and the wider promotion of the sport. In 2016 NBC Sports had broadcast its coverage from a standing start, whereas now they had over a season of experience at bringing live Premiership rugby coverage the US and were already building their audience.  They all agreed that NBC Sports would be a key partner to promote the match and continue to drive interest and participation with USA Rugby after the game and years ahead. The game will also be broadcast in the UK by BT Sport.

The stadium can hold 18,500 fans.  Lyle, Harvey and Hayes were all confident that the 2017 should be a sell-out.  They collectively acknowledged that the game would be up against other sporting events in Philadelphia and across media channels. They were confident though of getting rugby’s voice heard and driving ticket sales.  The local NFL side, the Eagles, are playing away that weekend and a key difference from 2016 was around the timing of the game.  Whereas in 2016 it had clashed with Six Nations period, the 2017 game was early in the season when all the top stars for both participating teams were available.

That player availability point was important.  The media strategy around the game would be able to make much of Saracens being the reigning back to back Champions Cup winners and the presence of the likes of European Player of the Year Owen Farrell and five other British and Irish Lions 2017 tourists.  Newcastle Falcons have also recruited well over the summer, with big name signings such as French international Maxime Mermoz, former England fly-half Toby Flood and Canadian winger D.T.H. van der Merwe arriving to supplement last season’s surprise high flyers.

Harvey said that Saracens would be happy to accept further invitations to be the away team in future years.  It was a more challenging request to take a home game away from fans in the UK, as Newcastle was doing for this game.  Saracens were only just starting to find their home at Allianz Park, building growth in attendance and driving higher season ticket sales.  Home fans were understandably disappointed when a game was taken away from their usual home stadium.  Harvey acknowledged though that the club might have to accept being a home side in the USA at some point. 

Newcastle Falcons have stated that, ‘It represents a huge commercial opportunity for the club, and the additional revenue received will be considerable… [The] money we make from this fixture will be around three times what we would have made by staging it in Newcastle. This enables us to fund the considerable investment we are putting into our playing squad and facilities.’

Hayes thought that both Saracens and Falcons would benefit from being ‘one of the first to market’ in the USA to build their brand and fans in the US identifying support for them.  It would also grow the game more widely to benefit all the other Premiership clubs.  This was the start of a very positive sporting and commercial relationship and was truly win-win rugby. The enthusiasm about the game from Lyle, Harvey, Hayes and Brits was palpable.  Call it now the start of something very exciting for the future of rugby in the USA.  As the lyric states, “Living in America, got to have a celebration.”  

In just over 80 days it’ll be time for Premiership Rugby’s party in Philadelphia and new Founding Fathers to encourage the game to build to new heights in the USA.

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