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How successful was Premiership's Philadelphia experiment? Posted about 1 month ago

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How successful was Premiership’s Philadelphia experiment?

As the dust settles on the Aviva Premiership’s latest attempt to crack the United States market, Graham Jenkins reflects on what the league can learn from their Philadelphia experiment.

Philadelphia is no stranger to historical significance with the Declaration of Independence and the United States’ Constitution both having been signed in the city.

As a result it is perhaps not surprising that it was chosen to stage the ground-breaking game between Aviva Premiership rivals Newcastle Falcons and Saracens.

Unfortunately the clash, the first in a four-year agreement with promoters AEG Rugby, failed to leave the kind of indelible mark as that left by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton with a crowd of just 6,271 lured to the 18,500-capacity Talen Energy Stadium.

The attendance was also some way short of that which witnessed the first Premiership game played overseas that was staged in New York last year. On that occasion Saracens edged out London Irish in front of an official crowd of 14,811 at the 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena.

Premiership Rugby will no doubt have been a little concerned by the failure to capture the imagination of a sports-mad city that happily worships major league sides like the Eagles, the Phillies, the 76ers, the Flyers and Union along with several high-performing college teams in their thousands.

The timing of the match just two games into the season, the ticket prices and the marketing of the event will no doubt be reviewed by Premiership Rugby and AEG Rugby before they confirm their return to Philadelphia next year when Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty is hoping for a significant improvement.

“For this sort of stadium, we would have to be filling it within three years otherwise something’s not right,” he declared post-game.

“We’ve got to build an affiliation with our teams and our league…Will it be two, three or four years? That’s the sort of time we should be moving the dial. We need to strip the car back and work out how to present ourselves.”

McCafferty and several representatives from English rugby’s leading clubs were in town for the game sharing their knowledge in an effort to boost the development of the game Stateside but also to collect ideas as to how they can increase the exposure of their own product in what is considered a potentially huge and hitherto untapped market.

The Eagles and the Phillies were among those to open their doors and offer an insight into their respective operations – but it was arguably the action on the field at Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field that will have enlightened them most.

The presentation of both the MLB game and the college football clash many of them witnessed were as impressive as the stadiums themselves and they perhaps provided a blueprint as to how crack America.

Each break in play was pounced upon as an opportunity to entertain, inform or reward those in the stadium with marching bands, cheer squads and prize giveaways engaging fans and maintaining the energy generated by the game itself.

The Premiership clash flirted with such an approach with some pre-game and half-time rugby demonstrations and the odd prize giveaway but the razzmatazz was not in the same league as that on show elsewhere in the city.

It was not lost on McCafferty who has hinted at changes next year.

“We’ve got to look at our packaging,” he said. “We can’t do certain things differently because of the integrity of the competition and the rules but what we can do is experiment with the packaging to work out what Americans want."

“I was struck by how the crowd cheered when someone in the crowd caught the ball when it was kicked into touch. Maybe that stems from baseball? Maybe next time they could keep the ball?"

“It’s the small things that we could do differently. Can we use the music differently during stoppages? A diehard fan back in England might think it’s completely inappropriate but it might appeal to the American audience.”

It is not existing fans that they need to attract to the sport and specifically the next game of what has been called the ‘American Series’.

That loyal group came from all corners for the match, just as they did for the recent showcase international fixtures staged in the States like Ireland’s recent victory over New Zealand in Chicago.

It is the new fans that they must attract but that is not so easy when they have no understanding of what can be a complicated and confusing sport.

Unsurprisingly, the fierce physical confrontations that most closely resemble the duels they witness in American Football drew the most reaction from the crowd in Philadelphia.

But the more intricate elements of the game will have left those with no reference point nor grounding in the sport a little confused – despite the crib sheet in the programme, the odd clarification from the stadium announcer and visual prompts on the big screen.

Premiership Rugby possesses a trump card in this battle for hearts and minds in the form of broadcast partner NBC who broadcast every game in the Premiership via one of their traditional or digital platforms.

That commitment to the sport and its promotion should benefit all and is one McCafferty believes can boost both the game in the States and the Premiership.

“I have been on record a few times saying over the next few years saying our US TV numbers could exceed English ones,” he explained. “We have a very strong partner in NBC who have, just to take one stat, had 22 million downloads of their app.”

“All those kinds of things allow you to do much more, more quickly than you can do in other markets…we are 100 per cent sure represent the sort of ingredients that you need to be successful.”

The profile of the sport in the States is set to take another huge step forward when NBC add the Six Nations to their growing rugby portfolio with England’s clash with Ireland on St Patrick’s Day next year set to be broadcast to a national audience via their terrestrial channel.

It is worth noting that Premiership Rugby have repeatedly stressed that the attendance or TV ratings were never going to define the success of the event but some numbers are clearly more important than others.

Hundreds of local kids attended coaching clinics in the lead up to the game while dozens of coaches and referees also benefited from Premiership expertise as part of what they claimed was a much more ‘ambitious’ project and one devised to ensure a much deeper relationship with USA Rugby and the local community.

Arguably the most important aspect of the initiative is the Premiership Rugby Scholarship scheme that will see ten female and male players (aged 17-18) along with 10 American coaches invited to England to further their rugby education.

And ultimately, it is those individuals and not the Premiership stars that will spearhead the development of the game in the States.

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website Scrum.com, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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