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From ice hockey and American football, to baseball and basketball, the US is bursting with professional sports that generate more cash every year thanks to blockbuster TV deals.
Is there room for rugby to make a splash?
Michael Clements thinks so. The chief executive of National Rugby Football League hopes to capitalise on enthusiasm in the country for what he calls “tackle sports” by launching a professional league made up of 6 to 12 teams by 2017.
The NRFL is owned by his company, RugbyLaw, and is in discussions with several potential owners of new professional rugby “franchises”.
Clements declines to comment on who these investors are — or who is backing the NRFL — but says he hopes to launch competitive teams in big population centres, such as Dallas, Boston, Denver and Minnesota, namely cities where there is already an established culture and tradition of American football.
The sport should be targeting American football fans, he says — and aiming to replicate the commercial success of the National Football League. “The NFL makes $11bn a year and only plays from September to January,” he notes. “From January to September what else is there?”
There is a long tradition of rugby in the US, particularly at university level, where former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush played the game.
Some 5m children have played youth rugby in the US in the past five years, according to governing body USA Rugby, while more than 100,000 people are registered with the organisation.
“It’s the fastest growing sport in the country,” says Clements.
Starting any professional league will be expensive but he says no new arenas would be needed. Instead, he envisages professional rugby teams sharing stadiums with American football teams — and possibly attracting investment from owners of those teams.
What about players? There might be plenty of kids playing rugby but are there enough adults playing of a sufficiently high standard to populate the teams in a league?
The US has a vast pool of potential talent, he says, pointing to American footballers who had short careers in the NFL or who were released by their teams and who might be looking for a new challenge. These athletes often need to learn the game but they already have the physical attributes necessary to be top level rugby players.
“We’ll be recruiting each one to become future rugby players,” says Shawn Zobel, the NRFL’s director of personnel.
The NRFL has hosted several coaching “combines” where aspiring players are assessed in speed and athleticism much in the same way that university-level American football players are rated by professional NFL teams.
“We have the infrastructure and we have an outstanding pool of players,” says Clements. Some have been over to England recently to gain experience and did exceptionally well, he adds.
One player registered with the NRFL, Taylor Gentry, has hopes of a career in South Africa. Gentry, who briefly played for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, this summer joined the Durban-based Natal Sharks on trial.
US rugby may need to iron out some areas of friction between those at the top of the game if it is to realise its full potential at the professional level. An indication of this was seen in the summer.
Gentry was one of the US players set to play a friendly game in June against the Leicester Tigers for the Rough Riders, a team Clements hopes will become a US version of the Barbarians invitational side.
It would have been the most high-profile US fixture of its kind and was to be played in Philadelphia, but was scrapped after USA Rugby refused to sanction it.
“It is very disappointing that a fixture which would help to launch professional club rugby in the US should be blocked by a national governing body charged with the development and growth of the game in their own country,” said Simon Cohen, the Tigers’ chief executive.
“A sanctioned game between an overseas team and a domestic US team requires the sanction of both USA Rugby and the overseas team’s national governing body,” USA Rugby said in a statement. As the Rough Riders are not a registered US rugby club “the match cannot be sanctioned”.
The NRFL has no plans to register with USA Rugby. Why? Clements says he is following a model set by other professional sports leagues, such as the NFL and the National Basketball Association, which are self-contained with no outside interference from an amateur body.
Conflicts between governing bodies and professional leagues are common in other sports but it is unclear what consequences this rift will have for the development of the NRFL.
Clements is undeterred and confident of the commercial prospects for professional rugby in the US. He mentions the list of the top 50 most valuable sport franchises, which is compiled every year by Forbes magazine, and argues that rugby belongs in the list.
“The US is where it’s at,” he says. “Everything here is perfect for professional rugby.”
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