Today, the first Aviva Premiership game will take place at New Jersey’s Red Bull Stadium between basement side London Irish and league leaders Saracens. Although organisers will claim the event is to expand the appeal of the game, this is all an elaborate attempt by both teams – particular London Irish – to build up fanbases in the US and leech a lucrative new market for all its financial worth.
And for London Irish it does make some sense to lure the many hundreds of thousands of people living in and around New York that are of Irish descent and still wildly celebrate their cultural roots. New York City has had an annual St Patrick’s Day parade since 1762 and it is a colossal event that involves over 150,000 marchers.
Additionally, given some of the similarities that exist between the United States’ most popular sport, ‘football’ or ‘gridiron’ and rugby, there are ample opportunities to appeal to the many millions of fans of NFL across the nation.
Our ‘football’ or ‘soccer’ as the Americans call it, is a growing sport in the US and there are now over 4,000,000 registered American players and 9,000 clubs. Moreover, the pre-season 2014 International Champions Cup broke attendance records when Manchester United beat Real Madrid 3 – 1 at the Michigan Stadium, with 109,000 spectators. Compare that with rugby which has 460,000 registered players and 2,600 clubs and you can see there is a long way for the sport to go to match its round ball counterpart, but the opportunities are there.
However, although London Irish would have been planning this event many months and possibly years in advance, it could not come at a worse time for the Reading-based club. With only 13 points from 15 games this season, having only won 3 games, Irish look like big favourites for the drop into the Championship. Newcastle Falcons are in 11th and are already on 21 points, despite losing at home to fellow strugglers Worcester last week.
With London Irish now flying their playing squad and management over to New York for the week, one cannot help but feel this glorified marketing exercise could serve as an irritating distraction for head coach Tom Coventry and his team.
Facing league leaders Saracens as well, Irish have essentially lost a ‘home’ game at the Madejski Stadium in favour of sniffing out some shamrock dollars that could see them walk away from yet another fixture with no points. As much as the Exiles will want this game to be a success, Saracens will be hoping to build up their own fanbase in the US and will be determined to put in a performance that reflects their table-topping prowess for the majority of this season.
Previously, Harlequins and Wasps played an LV Cup fixture in Abu Dhabi back in 2011, which was the first UK domestic fixture to be played overseas, but the feat has not been repeated since. Premiership Rugby – the umbrella body for England’s top 12 clubs – seems determined to make their ventures into the American market a success.
Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, told the Guardian that regardless of whether London Irish stay in the Premiership or not, more games will be planned.
“It is a London Irish fixture and if they remain in the Premiership it would stay that way. It is easier if they are involved, but you have to factor in promotion and relegation and we are committed to playing in the United States for three years.”
It may be then, that London Irish’s grand American adventure will go off more with a whimper than the bang they are hoping for. The English clubs want to get their foot in the door in the potentially lucrative US market and it won’t be long before the rest of the world joins in, particularly the wealthy French clubs. However, for London Irish this might just be their last big party before the doldrums of relegation set in.
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