PHILADELPHIA, PA – London Irish have moved their Round 16 fixture against Saracens to Red Bull Arena in the New York City area. The March 12 match is the first Aviva Premiership match to take place “overseas.”
This is good news for all involved. The fact that this is an event that is being organized by someone other than USA Rugby is part of the positive. The staff at USA Rugby all seem to want to do well, but the organization, for whatever reason, has not shown great success in running and marketing their events.
This is good news for rugby fans in America because it is professional rugby, a game that matters, in the US.
This is good news for the Aviva Premiership because there is no reason London Irish and Saracens can’t do what Harlequins did this summer.
Harlequins were in the Philly area this summer for an exhibition match against the USA Eagles and clearly focused on building good will. Harlequins had an open training session followed by a youth clinic. I went with my 3 sons and they were charmed. From the moment we arrived until we left, Harlequins staff were friendly and engaging. My oldest, who is 10, was especially taken with Ben Botica who was one of the players running the kicking section of the clinic at the end. At the match against the Eagles on the weekend, Harlequins placed supporters’ flags on the seats so that any neutral would know for whom to cheer. My sons were also charmed by that.
That kind of charming and winning-over of kids – and adults – is the purpose of these trips to the US. If London Irish and Saracens can be as focused and engaging as Quins, the trip should be a clear success.
The US rugby market is still small, for sure. However, as it grows, there should be a fight from different leagues to see who gets the US fans. Aviva Premiership seems better positioned than their potential rivals. The language is the easy one for Americans, the time difference is manageable, and all matches can be watched via the Premiership website. That last item is a big one. If new fans are hooked as a result of the match at Red Bull Arena, it is important that the fans can easily follow the side on a weekly basis.
Even with the positives, the idea that Irish-Americans are going to embrace London Irish in particular because of the club’s Irishness seems a stretch to me. The press release stresses the cultural connection.
“Taking place amidst the build-up to the St. Patrick’s Day festivities in the “Big Apple”, this London Irish home game will also be a celebration of Irish culture for the many thousands of first, second and third generation Irish people living in the New York region.”
Maybe. It seems like Americans who identify strongly with their Irish ancestry and want to connect to a professional rugby club would choose one of the Irish sides. In terms of things that are appealing because they are Irish, a rugby club that plays in Reading, England falls pretty low on the list.
That doesn’t mean that the event can’t be a success and that there isn’t a market. Over-reliance on the Irish connection is a potential trap, though.
In terms of expectations, this is not like the NFL playing in London or like the European soccer/football clubs who tour the US. The difference is in the scale of the operation and existing fan base. When London Irish hosted Leicester on the opening weekend this year, the attendance was 6,597.
The fact that the match will be taking place on a 6 Nations weekend shouldn’t matter too much. The number of Americans who know who, say, Owen Farrell is and will be angry because he is on England duty is small. They are likely people like me who will grumble that it is too bad, but that isn’t going to stop us from going. If Chris Wyles, Titi Lamositele, and Hayden Smith are part of the match day squad for Saracens, that gives die-hard Eagles fans a rooting interest
If 10,000 people turn up, that’ll be excellent. If London Irish and Saracens spend the week engaging potential fans in a positive manner, those clubs and rugby in America will be stronger for it.
Tickets go on sale Friday, October 30.
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