As a fan of rugby outside a traditional rugby-playing country, sometimes professional and international rugby can be frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, high-level rugby is the best aspect of the sport, but if you live outside the British Isles, France, or a SANZAR country, the chance of you watching the best players in-person is a rare thing. Sure, we get all of the matches on TV, but it isn’t the same. The level of emotional investment just isn’t there when you can’t go out to matches or even talk about the games with most co-workers and friends.
Still, the most frustrating part about professional and international rugby for fans outside those countries, is that we are a huge market waiting to be tapped, but no one is taking advantage of it. How many times have professional clubs or international teams gone to play in foreign markets? No many. There are only a few examples. The Bledisloe Cup has been active in taking the competition outside of Australia and New Zealand to Asia and has reaped a nice profit because of it. The Saracens have been active going to places like South Africa and the Middle East to play matches. Not only has doing so increased their coffers but it has boosted their brand internationally. There are also other examples of clubs going outside their home country, such as Clermont playing the U.S. in South Carolina a few years back, but for the most part clubs are staying home and missing out.
When you compare these efforts to those of soccer, you really begin to see where rugby is falling behind. Sure, soccer does have a bigger global brand than rugby, but the principle is still the same. Here in America, not only do we get big clubs like Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Barcelona, etc., touring almost every summer, but we get smaller clubs as well. For example, Burnley made it to America, as did Port Vale. Port Vale! There is no way that Port Vale has a bigger profile than even an RFU Championship side. These teams come over to America because they want to expand their brand, bond their squad, and make some money.
So when only the Saracens are choosing to expand themselves, albeit to places like South Africa and Dubai, it is extremely frustrating to fans outside core nations. We want to enjoy rugby in person. We want to spend money on tickets. We want to take our friends to matches and get them hooked on the sport, but we need clubs and international teams to step up and make it happen. There are opportunities out there. If teams like Biarritz or Gloucester were to approach U.S.A. Rugby or Rugby Canada about playing a match against a national team or a select team in say Chicago or Toronto, do you think those organizations would put together a team? Absolutely they would. It would be unfair of them to expect to take on the whole cost of the match, but they can certainly get a team together. Not only would it benefit the traveling club, but it would benefit rugby in the U.S., Canada, and even Argentina. Think about the potential in Argentina. Rugby is that country’s second most popular sport, yet they lack any professional teams. Do you think a team from France, playing a select team in Argentina, or even another team from France, wouldn’t draw a crowd? It certainly would.
I can understand if clubs and international sides don’t have the money up front to plan an overseas trip, but for a team like the Barbarians there is no excuse. The Barbarians have obviously gone out of their way in recent years to expand their brand. The recently announced summer squad features players from ten countries. They have introduced Rugby League players Sam Tomkins and Willie Mason to union, but yet they consistently ignore places like North and South America. If you took the upcoming Barbarians team and had them play a team like England, Wales, or New Zealand in the United States, the match could draw a massive crowd and the exposure for the Barbarians brand would be enormous. It makes perfect business sense.
Sure, all of this seems like a list of complaints and whining, but it really isn’t. It is more of a plea for teams like the Barbarians, international sides, and club teams to expand their brand to places like the Americas. It is frustrating to see too many professional and international sides stuck in tradition. If the game is ever going to grow, it is going to take some teams pushing the envelope and moving beyond the way things have always been. Teams need to get out and stretch the regions of rugby.
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