Reality Of New Pro12 Rugby Nations

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With desire to improve and expand the Guinness Pro12 being suggested by many parties, recent talk of new Pro12 rugby nations has arisen. Is this a reality? Let Last Word On Sports take a look at the pro’s and con’s of such action.

PRO12 – THE SITUATION

With the Guinness Pro12 in dire need of more income and a better product, the Board of the Pro12 League and representing unions have met to explore all possible scenario’s. The parties have been the looking into many options, which include possibly ‘bringing in the exiles’ of London Scottish and London Welsh. Their admission may have been dismissed rather quickly by all accounts.

There has been the band of people looking into getting rid of the Italian sides, but that’s not going to happen any time soon – with them being equal partners in the league and part of the European Accord set up to control the league’s diplomacy–with that influence, Zebre and Treviso are not likely to release their control.

Finally, and more recently, the Pro12 has looked into expanding overseas. That maybe into Spain or the United States to be precise. This may be, or may not be, a very realistic goal and will require a lot of research by the powers that be. On consultation with all partners, decisions must be made on whether it generates the income and product that the league requires. The US team is the most likely, and the most talked about.

So let us take a look at how much of a reality this is, and what may need to be done in order for these sides to be a partner in the Pro12.

US EXPANSION

The plans that the league might undertake would wish for an American-based franchise team based in either Boston or New York. The exact location is yet to be determined, but somewhere on the east coast is the front runner for most commentators. This would potentially tap into a huge TV audience if a major media organisation were committed to broadcasting it. That is a key step.

The United States has a population of around 319 million, and while not all will have a taste for rugby, market penetration on the east coast has the potential to grow the interest and exposure of all sides in the competition. You can see where the league are coming from, with such a huge potential audience out there.

FINANCIAL VIABILITY?

It has been mentioned by an alternative source (WalesOnline) that the four current unions controlling rugby in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy would be ”prepared to help get it up and running.” Financially?  The WRU cant really afford to do this even if they cut some costs. All the other unions are running close to turning profits as well and so they would be in a very tricky situation as too investing money into a new franchise that isn’t guaranteed to turnover profit any time soon.

The current ‘Pro Rugby League‘ doesn’t have a large, major TV broadcaster investing millions and so is this an indication of the demand the US holds for rugby union?

Rugby 15’s is the fastest growing sport in America and along with a strong 7’s side it does push for role models which in turn does highlight the game to the wider audience. The trick is to get the TV companies like ”NBC” or ”FOX” to see the tuning in audience and the profit potential on this venture. Would this bring the £150m+ TV deals that France and England see’s?

Not really, but it certainly would be likely to increase the funding. It must be said going on their current product and want for rugby union it doesn’t look likely that one of the big TV companies will be taking on the Pro12 any time soon, although if they get up and running quickly it may be that they come knocking.

However logistically it may be very difficult for this side. There aren’t any venues on the east coast used for rugby, with Memorial Park in Ohio being the closest, and that holds only 3,000 people. The largest venue home to an American pro team holds 11,442 and that is all the way over in California. 3000 seating capacity wouldn’t cater for the crowds needed or wanted and even if it did.

The income it would generate at an average of £20 a ticket over the 3000 would only see a turnover of £60,000 (working in GBP). Compare this to the worst performing Pro12 side (attendance wise) Treviso and that is still £4000 out at a minimum on ticket sales alone. Bearing in mind the running costs and/or rent of a stadium and this cuts a sizeable proportion out of this.

Leinster v Connacht - Guinness PRO12 Final
The Leinster jersey prior to the Guinness PRO12 Final match between Leinster and Connacht.

Yes factor in food/beverage stalls and merchandise/programme sales and even this wouldn’t generate enough income to fund a fully blown pro side that costs around or up to £10,000,000. Using Scarlets for comparison in costs, it is £9,961,121 to run including staff fee’s, player wages and running costs. As shown by accounts released in April.

There also doesn’t appear to be any major or long term investor behind a new US team, or at least in the public’s eye, and this is essential if they are looking at becoming one of the Pro12 nations.

Due to USA’s many adverse weather conditions it must be said with east coast mainland USA being susceptible to rain, sleet and snow an artificial pitch, like the one in place at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park, to give it’s full title, would be needed. This could cost anywhere between  £400,000-£600,000 depending on size of the area covered and grade of pitch. An added price on an ever mounting costs sheet.

TRAVELLING & LOGISTIC COSTS

There is roughly around a five to six hour flight to New York from London, and with all the kit and equipment the sides will need to transport to and fro USA it will not be cheap or lacking in time consumption.

To compare, NFL teams take six months to get their gear together – albeit a lot more of it. It will still take around three weeks to a month as they have around six or seven times less kit and around half the people to move around.

This would cost thousands on top of an already tight budget for all teams. The private investors of already participating nations wouldn’t really want to fund this extra cost for short term, at least, poor product rugby wise -from the new Pro12 nation- and little generative income during their home ties and through TV coverage. Look at Ireland’s provinces, they are largely backed by the IRFU and so would the Irish union want to pay for four extra 12 hour round trips to Boston or New York? Probably not.

One thing that must be accounted for in all of this travel is the massive costs that would be applied in the constant back and forth travel commitments.

LEAGUE SETTING

The league as it stands is an equal number and so adding a US team would always create that extra team that would be on a ‘bye week‘ so to speak where they have no game. This planning is not great and structurally for fixtures would add either lots more midweek games or add a few weeks into an already overcrowded schedule.

If the Italians dropped their worst performing team and by far the worst performing team over the last few years results wise, Treviso, this would even up Pro12 nations, but this would be hard to pass or overturn as due to recent agreements and also partly due to the European accord the Italians are now equal partners in the league and so they would be unlikely to agree in removing a team from a league they fought for years to get teams in and equal partners.

The other partners in the league would also be unlikely to agree to this, going on cost of the new team alone.

CURRENT INTEREST

There are currently five professional teams in the USA–Pro Rugby– with the aim to expand it to more teams, and maybe even to Canada in 2017 and beyond. Plus an interest in 7’s is increasing in that market. US fans admire the highly skilled European competition, so there is an attraction. Whether they can embrace a sole-franchise on the east coast is another.

Some big names have already been attracted to the States. That includes with New Zealand great Mils Muliaina on the books at the San Francisco Rush. Springboks number eight Pedrie Wannenburg and Italian centre Mirco Bergamasco are with the Denver Stampede and the Sacramento Express, respectively. Add to that local stars, and the ever improving skills base, and the competitive levels will increase.

RUGBY-US-PRO
Denver and Ohio players run onto the field before the inaugural match of the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado

Overall the value the side would bring to the Pro12 would be a few extra millions IF they became included in the current TV deal which could be updated in its renewal in 2018 and increased, or if they got their own deal over in the US with a larger broadcaster. They also need to have a backer of sorts, whether it be a private investor or USA rugby themselves to put in the millions requires to run a pro side.

In the current climate a side in the USA isn’t really a reality with little money behind it, and with them bringing low value to the league as it stands. This does not however mean without additions of materials and sources listed above that we wont see a team from there soon, but on current progress there shouldn’t be a side entering the Pro12 from USA on costs alone.

A much more realistic situation is to reform the current Pro12 as it is -schedule, KO times etc.- or look into and try and force a way into an Anglo-Welsh league.
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