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USA professional league proposed
ESPN Staff
May 12, 2013
The USA celebrate winning the IRB Junior World Trophy, USA v Japan, Murray Rugby Park Stadium, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 30, 2012
The potential is there ... USA celebrate winning the IRB Junior World Trophy in 2012 © IRB
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Sporting alchemy

  • To many foreign sports not naturally embraced by the US market, America is the land of untapped riches and opportunity. Many have tried to muscle in, most have failed.

    The plans rugby has show striking similarities to a recent failed attempt by cricket to set up a professional league. The language is eerily similar as well, with talk of the appeal to professionals of life in the USA, investors lured to back franchises etc. For all the enthusiasm and dreaming, the stark reality is that investors are hard to come by and most big-name players will be those at the end of their careers looking for one last big pay cheque.

    Cracking a deeply entrenched and insular market is nigh on impossible. That's not to say this will fail. But the most optimistic expectation should be that it will establish a tenuous toehold on the sporting agenda rather than the hearts and minds of the country.

Plans are underway to create a professional rugby union competition in the USA as early as 2014 according to a report in the Guardian. Premier Rugby Limited, which represents the English Aviva Premiership clubs, and the US National Football League are set to jointly back the initiative.

A match between London Irish and a US Barbarians side in Boston in August will be televised by the NFL Network television channel. A return match in London - probably against a different opposition - will take place a week later.

The choice of the London Irish has been made in a bid to capitalise on Boston's large Irish community and orgainisers hope that a crowd of up to 30,000 can be enticed to watch.

If the venture succeeds then it will be used as a springboard to attract sponsors and investors to support an East Coast league of up to six franchises. While tens of millions of dollars will be needed to support the venture, promoters are cautiously optimistic that big-name players will be enticed by the appeal of playing in the USA.

The NFL's interest is based largely on such a competition giving it an appealing product to broadcast during the long off-season. It is also expected that teams will be boosted by the large numbers of talented young players who narrowly fail to make the grade in American Football as well as NFL discards.

George Robertson of RugbyLaw, one of the promoters, told the Guardian that the initial plan is to identify up to 100 "international elite-level rugby players" from the existing US community. "The richest resource America can present to the world of rugby union will be the thousands of pro- level athletes currently not playing rugby union - the application of a well-thought-out system to find them, identify them, and then coach them. There is no need to re-invent the wheel in how to find elite American rugby union talent - America is already the undisputed global leader in professional contact football."

The USARFU is watching cautiously. While it has backed the initial match it is understandably uneasy about how the new structure might impact and undermine its control of the national game.

But for now it is all plans and ambitions. The first test comes in Boston in August.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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