We’ve all heard the rumours of Super Rugby expanding into North America before. So when SANZAR boss Greg Peters mentioned yesterday that the competition was once again exploring the idea it got fans excited but not too excited. The odds of Super Rugby expanding anywhere outside of Argentina in the near future seem slim at best. Not only is travel a factor, but it’s questionable whether there are enough rugby fans in one city to get 20,000 people out to a match.
That being the case, why to Peters and other officials insist on continuing to mention the U.S. and other locations and possible expansion candidates? It’s simple: money. Currently Super Rugby derives most of its money from television contracts and an expansion of the interested viewing area would help boost the competition’s negotiating position with television networks, mainly Fox which has a big presence in the United States. Think about this. In total SANZAR has a roughly 75 million people, California alone has 38 while the U.S. has over 300. Thrown in Japan, Canada, and Argentina, the has to increase SANZAR’s bargaining power.
But there are problems with just using population and television audience alone. There is no doubt that the American rugby community would get behind a Super Rugby team, and while rugby in America is growing, that support group would still be small. Just look at the television numbers for current broadcasts on Fox Soccer Plus. They are good numbers but not enough to get significant attention.
What would get the attention of television broadcasters is a successful summer of rugby in America. The U.S. is going to see more high-level rugby events this year than in any time in recent memory. Some of the highlights include the Las Vegas 7’s, the Collegiate Rugby Championship, Grand Prix 7’s, the Golden Lions tour of America, and the Eagles home matches against Ireland, Tonga, and Canada. If a large number of people turn out to these events and tune in on television, it could be enough to gain the attention of broadcasters. It would also be proof to SANZAR officials that fans in America are willing to turn out to events. This doesn’t mean that expectations should be too high. After all, the U.S. saw a record crowd last year at 18,000--that’s less than the average for a Super Rugby match—but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a beginnings of something big.
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SANZAR already has seen the potential for rugby in America, that’s why they’ve expressed interest in the past. What makes Peters’ comments so interesting is that they came in the context of the Pacific Nations Cup. For the first time SANZAR seems to think they have a measuring stick to see if the U.S. can at least be competitive in the competition. Peters specifically said that “we are considering whether or not we will include new territories in Super Rugby and one of the factors we'll be weighing up is their competitiveness." How exactly that competitiveness will be measured is another question. The likelihood that a U.S.-based Super Rugby team would be “all American” is remote. The more likely scenario is that so many spots are put aside for U.S. players while the rest are staffed with Argentineans, or other members of SANZAR.
What SANZAR is looking for is to see whether the U.S. has enough top flight players to compete. Playing in the Pacific Nations Cup against Samoa and Tonga, who are arguably better than Tier I nations Scotland and Italy, will be seen as a test of whether the U.S. can field a competitive team. Close results or wins against Tonga, Fiji, and Japan could be enough to convince SANZAR that placing an American team in Super Rugby will not dilute the competition. As such, there is a lot riding on the Eagles summer performance.
U.S. fans shouldn’t get their hopes raised too high at Peters’ comments, but they should be encouraged that they are at least to the point where there are serious discussions. No one is going to gift us an opportunity at Super Rugby, we have to earn it, but it’s something that we can achieve.
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