Philly ‘Damp Squid’ Steak – Aviva Premiership across the pond

Small crowd at Aviva game in Philadephia

Listeners of the Blood and Mud pod have learned the mantra, “So far, it’s all going horribly.” The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly expressed his headline verdict on the recent USA-based Aviva Premiership game, Saracens v Newcastle. We are grateful to Graham Jenkins’ work to reveal the thoughts of Premiership Rugby’s chief, Mark McCafferty.

On the back end of the experiment, a few things give one pause. Decisions about this game appear to be quite disconnected from the club rugby communities across the USA. Rugby ‘bureaucrats’ seeking larger marketing dollars early in the development of the US market need to take this seriously. The very visible presence of AEG on all communications suggests serious marketing interests, but raises flags about authenticity.

A few hard truths

Professional rugby will not draw large numbers of non-rugby sports fans in the US any time soon. Anyone who makes plans thinking otherwise needs to politely hand in their keys.

The game drew 6,200-odd fans, not a bad result but for unrealistic expectations and the poor timing and marketing. While Jenkins notes that those in attendance came from all corners, do we have any evidence to back this up? I cringed when organizers even mentioned the last two international tests in Chicago as evidence of potential. Such talk represents willful denial of reality. Aviva Premiership games in the US will depend on local and regional people who already like rugby. Activating the clubs is the first task.

Premiership officials talked about bringing in ‘new’ fans. People being paid to know better spoke of borrowing from baseball and college football, injecting more music, firing projectiles of cheap t-shirts into the crowd, marching bands and cheer squads. If this thinking has taken hold in London, please stop. Instead of stewarding the game, you are becoming part of the problem. These ‘innovations’ are the worst part of the professional game.

Know the audience

Die-hard fans of American football or baseball are not your target market. I should include this sentence in every paragraph I ever write. People love rugby, and will invest time and money to see rugby, because it is not those sports. Falling for the never-ending growth psychology of corporate, professional sport will serve only to further undermine the best qualities of rugby. Fans value continuous play, player-driven games that embrace all shapes and sizes, and a distinctive sporting culture that blends a rough, combative game with genuine fellowship. Professionalism threatens these virtues enough as it is.

The occasional Premiership game here may be a good idea, but not in competition with American club games. The scenario to pursue would have the Premiership game as the final act of a day-long event, with several games beforehand, youth and club (both men and women). If you want an event, then make it one. The weekend also conflicted with a longstanding tournament in Aspen, CO. The Aspen tournament is hugely appealing to ‘old boys’ who would never consider traveling to Philly for a Premiership game instead.

Premiership Rugby’s belief they can sell out an 18,000 person stadium for a regular league match is pretty naive unless connected to a bigger slate of rugby. USA fans will mobilize for a single test match, especially if the All Blacks come to town. Proliferation of international games and growing but uneven access to televised games works against that goal. NBCSN broadcast this game as one of a handful that weekend, though hours after the game was played. 

McCafferty asserted that every Premiership game is available for viewing stateside through NBC. Not even close. NBCSN presented two games, one Friday and one Saturday, both delayed several hours. The NBC Sports App offered no additional games. The next weekend brought three games. The most compelling, Exeter v Wasps, also was shown several hours after it happened. Premiership Rugby could help itself by not restricting half the games from on-demand streaming on its own website.

Lessons for the future

So, damp squib? I would offer it was modestly successful for what it was, a very limited offering. Much room exists for improvement, so let me turn to some suggestions. Planning for 2018 could do several things.

  • Set the date as early as possible, so that clubs (both men and women) from the regional can make adjustments to their schedules to enable them to locate their matches in the same place or very nearby, generating hundreds of added numbers and possibly more with some strong promotional efforts.
  • Give old boys a reason to participate and bring their money. Any combination of an old boy set of games, hosted social events, and a chance to interact with the visiting clubs and fans should be central. Let old boys sponsor kids to to come to the game, offer them a menu of packages that include a ticket, some kit, and a chance to be at a rugby social the players attend. Pretty basic stuff. Maybe those things were on offer, but I saw no evidence of it.
  • Continue to make inroads with the youth rugby, where numbers are growing rapidly. A youth ‘festival’ of games could be held at the same venue (especially if it has sufficient satellite pitches). If youth ticket prices were more than $5, then they were too high unless the ticket included a sponsor-provided t-shirt or replica of either of the English clubs.
  • The Premiership Rugby Scholarship program is a nice start. Strong partnerships with clubs will enable expansion and long-term success. Please include referee development.
  • Use the game to announce a series of club-to-club partnerships to serve as a primary strategy for rugby development between Premiership clubs and top USA clubs. Strong clubs are vital to any efforts here, and investing in clubs should be at the heart of any long-term effort to improve and expand the game. One recent example is Saracens and Seattle.

Assumptions, expectations, and execution seem to be off the mark, at least a little. None of these issues are existential, but are critical to growth and development of the USA rugby community and marketplace. Premiership Rugby should recognize success will come from sustained investments to build the rugby community here and forged a real partnership.

About Oz

Tom Osdoba was an American rugby player who takes in as much top-level rugby as one readily can. His club, Metropolis RFC, based in Minneapolis, travels regularly to England and has a long-standing partnership with the Rugby Old Laurentians RFC.