Pro 12 looking at North America franchise as part of expansion

IRFU chief believes move may be viable in bid to counter fiscal imbalance with English clubs

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne during Friday’s agm at Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne during Friday’s agm at Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

 

With IRFU chief executive Philip Browne admitting “radical” change is needed for Irish provinces to remain competitive in Europe, the Guinness Pro12 is looking to create a North American franchise.

“The east coast of the US, why not?” said Browne after the union’s annual general meeting at the Aviva stadium. “The one thing we can bring to bear, as four unions, is if you operate a franchise model we can provide the coaches, we can provide the administrative expertise. We can do what is needed to get a franchise up and running pretty quickly.

“So, that’s what we are looking at. If we are going to do this we are not going to do it on the basis of putting together a half-baked team. What we need is a good team working in a market that has commercial opportunities for us.”

The Pro12 is already severely weakened by the uncompetitive Italian and Welsh sides in Europe. Super Rugby appears to have rushed Japanese and Argentinian franchises into their tournament in 2016.

Rugby in the US is actively expanding with a new domestic league while the All Blacks primary sponsor AIG have created an annual fixture in Chicago, which sees Ireland play New Zealand at Soldier Field on November 5th.

Potentially lucrative

An east coast-based US franchise entering the Pro12 would also open potentially lucrative broadcast and sponsorship markets.

“It does up to a point,” said Browne. “It won’t be an overnight success. No broadcaster in America is going to throw millions at it until they can see what it looks like and if it works.

“Funnily enough, in some markets, national broadcasting in the US is not where the money is. It is local broadcasting. So you have to pick the right city. But there are plenty of people in the US who are interested in rugby and its opportunities and they are interested in getting involved.

“We have to look at these opportunities.”

Browne also highlighted the possibility of creating a new European franchise by tapping into other major sports, namely soccer clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona.

“Professional sport is not a strange thing in places like Spain, Germany, Netherlands. For instance did you know that Real Madrid has a rugby club? As does FC Barcelona and Real Sociedad. So we must explore all those opportunities as well.”

The Pro12 have another link to US sports as newly appointed managing director Martin Anayi is, according to Browne, an “experienced sports marketing professional” having previously worked for New York-based International Management Group (IMG).

‘Meaningful tournament’

“Change is required if the Pro12 is to remain a meaningful tournament,” Browne continued. “The revenues generated by the tournament need to double or treble if the participating clubs/provinces are to remain competitive with the clubs in the English and French leagues.

“Such an increase in values will require some radical change to the tournament and how it is structured. The expansion of the tournament into new territories is probably a prerequisite and the first steps are being taken now in relation to a new strategic plan for the tournament.”

The threat for the Pro12 as it is about to renegotiate television deals, currently held by Sky Sports, and with title sponsors Guinness, is how much they are dwarfed by the money piled into the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 by broadcasters and billionaire club owners.

The current Pro12 TV deal is worth €14 million, which is minuscule in comparison to the Premiership (€51 million) and Top 14 (€97 million).

A US franchise might be the only way to ensure the Pro12 remains a competitive entity in world rugby and thereby stop an exodus of Irish players to foreign clubs.

“The risks to the Irish professional game are potentially profound,” said Browne.

If the long-shot strategy of creating a more competitive Pro 12 by expansion fails to materialise the parallel IRFU strategy is to invest heavily, €3.2 million, in development of better players at a quicker rate to cover the inevitable departure of senior internationals.

“The bottom line when we look at the French and English leagues and amount of money that is there, it is so significant in terms of the television contracts and private investors, the reality is we are not going to be able to match that.

“The best mitigation strategy we can employ is to generate better players more quickly than we are at the present.”

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