The advent of professional rugby has already occurred in the United States but that won’t stop other leagues from dreaming about setting up shop in North America. With even the most optimistic supporters of the league seeing it as a Currie Cup or Mitre 10 Cup-level league at the moment, foreign leagues still see an opportunity to establish themselves as the top flight league of North America.
Pro12 and the East Coast
We’ve already heard rumors this year from the Pro12, who hope to include Americans in a radical re-imagining of their competition. That desire was reiterated this weekend by Irish Rugby Football Union’s CEO Philip Browne, who told the Irish Times that expansion to the U.S. may be on the table in an effort to keep the league relevant as they fall behind the English and French leagues. The Pro12 is hoping that this sort of expansion, as well as other potential expansion franchises in continental Europe, will improve the league’s prestige and the revenues of the individual teams.
There isn’t much in the way of details, and even less about how such a franchise would actually benefit American rugby. It appears to be a situation where the franchise would be a Pro12 team that happens to be in America, rather than a truly American team. Browne mentions coaches and administrators being provided by the Pro12 unions, but where the players would come from is less certain. Most Pro12 teams operate with strict rules regarding player nationality in order to develop players for their national teams, but the U.S.’s relative dearth of rugby playing talent and our own complex laws on the subject make it unlikely that a U.S. team would have such rules. This team could pick up a number of North American players from other teams in the league, but there aren’t quite enough to fill out a roster. The exact balance of domestic and foreign players could also become a contentious point, as the league will want an American team that is competitive but not one that has significant advantages over the other teams in the competition.
For now, it doesn’t look like this concept will go anywhere. The main benefit of an American team – money – will also likely be the reason they don’t go through with it. The whole idea is an enormous financial risk that relies on rugby become popular before the sports TV rights bubble bursts. That could prove to be a huge setback for the league if it doesn’t work out. The Irish Times article mentions that the Irish union’s “parallel” idea is spending more heavily on player development, which is exponentially more sensible than another risky expansion of the Pro12.
Super Rugby and Hawai’i
There’s also speculation from the Southern Hemisphere, fueled by years of rumors on the subject, about their competition expanding to include an American team. The catalyst for the discussion of Super Rugby expansion actually has little to do with the U.S., but rather the Pacific Islands and the July 1 match between the Chiefs and Crusaders in Fiji. For advocates of a Pacific Islands franchise, the packed stands of Suva’s ANZ National Stadium was proof that the islands are a viable market for the league. Others are still skeptical, but Hawai’i has come up as a potential solution.
The theory is that Hawai’i is a dual threat location, satisfying the desire to expand to both the United States and the Pacific Islands. Craig Dowd of ESPN Scrum suggested just that with an opinion article that doesn’t scratch the surface other than saying it would be better than placing a Pacific Islands-centric team in Auckland or other markets that already have teams. Stuff.co.nz’s Liam Napier mentions Hawai’i as “unlikely”, but the passive mention of the island shows that it is a location that is widely acknowledged as a potential target.
Could Super Rugby be successful in Hawai’i? I would normally err on the side of caution because of the logistics but this situation is a bit more of an anomaly than the Pro12 scheme. For one, the travel required isn’t much of a problem for a competition that is already global. Aloha Stadium, which sits empty during the spring and summer, badly needs tenants. The venue was set to host a test match between the U.S. and Japan in 2014 but was moved before it was ever confirmed, likely due to turf issues. The Ohana Cup, an international rugby league event that has featured the U.S. and Polynesian national league teams, has been hosted at the stadium and the most recent edition was played before a crowd of around 8,000. Given that this is the less popular code in Hawai’i, it’s fair to assume that a professional rugby union team could do a little better.
Hawai’i may be a bit too much of a wild card for Super Rugby to go there, but it’s not a completely outrageous idea. If Super Rugby determines that it needs a Pacific Islands team, Honolulu could prove to be more attractive than Suva or Apia. And although Super Rugby doesn’t wear their desperation to remain relevant quite as boldly as the Pro12, they too see the American market as a potential game changer that would help them in similar ways but with the key difference of not needing to make wholesale changes to their competition to do so. Hawai’i won’t deliver the American market by itself, but it could be a very important first step to doing so and help accomplish other goals in the meantime.