A Look At The Potential PRO12 USA Expansion Plans
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The PRO12 could be set for a dramatic overhaul with the addition of two more teams from the USA and Canada.
It was reported last month that the PRO12 have began discussions about a potential expansion that would see North American franchises join the European league that already features clubs from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.
I’ve decided to take a look at how it could work and what exactly is involved.
The plan as stands is to add two North American franchises. One in Toronto and one in the USA, in either Texas or New York. The weather outside Texas could be an issue during the winter months, but they do manage to play American football at the same time of year, so it shouldn’t be a fatal flaw in the idea.
Rugby in the United States has about 440,000 ‘core participants’ and growing. That sounds like a lot, but archery has about 1.4m ‘core participants’, and is growing faster, so it’s a stat that has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Strangely, one of the biggest obstacles for rugby in the NFL obsessed nation is the belief that it is too dangerous. The lack of padding concerns parents, and there is a concern amongst pundits that the more gung ho football attitude Americans learn from an early age would makes severe rugby injuries inevitable, if the sport ever took off.
But it’s worth saying that nobody in the Pro 12 is claiming rugby is going to rival the Big 4 of American sport any time soon, or ever.
There is a very good balance right now in the PRO12, between a home game one week and an away game the next week. But it’s pretty clear a new North American franchise couldn’t do that, they’d spend half their season in the air.
The solution suggested is to split the new PRO12 or PRO14 into two conferences of 6 or 7. This way a Toronto team could block book their 6 or 7 away games in Europe, and effectively do a two month tour. And though they might lose some spark from being on the road so long, they’d also then have a block of home games to build up momentum, which isn’t a nothing advantage.
Both teams will need a home in Europe for the two or three months they’re here. This would make them less remote for the media, and make them feel less remote from the Celtic centre of things. It could also mean that players would be more tempted to sign for them if it actually meant only spending half a season away from home.
Though certainly, if they ended up with their own small stadium in Ireland, for example, and signed Irish players, we’d have just ended up creating a new Irish rugby team.
The scenes in Soldiers Field in November surely sets organisers eyes to dollar signs. There are surely enough Irish and Irish Americans ex pats willing to support a rugby team, to make it a success.
And with the PRO12 they have to rely on the Irish. A franchise based on Welsh or Scottish Americans is unlikely to have the numbers. And if Italy doesn’t care much for rugby, we can hardly think Italian Americans will suddenly be big fans.
Relying on the Irish to support your franchise sounds like relying on a man from Cork to support Toronto over Munster. Which isn’t going to happen. But he will go to all the games against the Irish provinces, if only to get to see national players like Heaslip and Bowe in action. And he will probably support Toronto against most teams. And he’ll probably bring his kids too, who might some day be native Toronto Rugby fans, who’ll even support Toronto over Munster, if only to annoy their father.
But that type of grassroots growth takes time. And even then, it didn’t work in Italy.