‘We’re in the foothills’ Premiership’s attempt to crack America reaches Philly

Newcastles fixture against Saracens in Philadelphia has not sold out but officials are hopeful that the sport will eventually get a foothold in the US P rem

Newcastles fixture against Saracens in Philadelphia has not sold out but officials are hopeful that the sport will eventually get a foothold in the US

Premiership Rugby and the promoter of Newcastle v Saracens in Philadelphia expected the game to sell out. Expectations have been adjusted.

When the teams run out at the Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday, around 10,000 are expected to attend. That would be 8,500 below capacity and 4,800 down on the crowd for last years US game, when Sarries beat London Irish in New Jersey.

Were in the foothills, said Dominic Hayes, Premiership Rugbys commercial director. In 20 years time hopefully well be looking back and seeing rugby with traction in the US market. That journey has got to begin somewhere.

This week, Hayes and executives from seven clubs have met the local government and the citys Eagles (NFL), Phillies (MLB) and Union (MLS). Were here to build, he said.

Were in this long-term, to find the optimum date for the fixture. Its about more than just this game.

Accordingly, there have been coaching clinics for players and referees and offers of scholarships for American players to train in the UK. Before the main match, Oxford University will face the Collegiate All Americans.

Still, bums on seats count. The former Bath, Leicester and US Eagles No8 Dan Lyle, now director of the promoter, AEG Rugby, said: Weve shifted another couple thousand of tickets in the last couple of days. Its partly a timing thing: week three of the Premiership, a week after kids go back to school both in the UK and the US. In year two well learn the lessons from this.

Irish-Sarries was a hard sell too. In its favour it took place in March, away from the NFL and college football, and it was close to New York, a bigger tourist draw. More importantly, little American rugby was played that day. In the crowd at the Red Bull Arena, as when 22,000 watched USA v Ireland in June, many wore the colours of school, college or club.

Rugby in the US is largely participatory, played in autumn and spring. On Saturday, from the Potomac Exiles in Maryland to Mystic River in Massachusetts, many who might have bought Premiership tickets will play their own games instead.

Alexander Diegel, a writer who plays for Old Gaelic near Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital, said Newcastle-Saracens would be right down our alley. Except that its also the day of our home opener. Most guys, if not all, theyve opted to play our match. And with the 5pm kickoff it doesnt really afford enough time to rush over and catch the game live in Philly.

Lyle said: When they designated this weekend as the best for broadcast and for the Premiership, it wasnt looked at in terms of whats best to galvanise crowds.

There are a lot of rugby players and fans but they may not yet know who Owen Farrell is, who Maro Itoje is. Were in the beginning of year two of the Premiership being on US TV. These are hand-in-glove strategies we will have to develop.

It should be pointed out that in the ordinary run of things, 10,000 for Newcastle v Saracens would be an encouraging figure. Newcastle, the home team, are the second-lowest-supported Premiership club. Their Kingston Park opener this month, a 35-8 win over Worcester, attracted 5,875. Saracens home, Allianz Park, holds 10,000.

Furthermore, the game will be broadcast across the US and its promoter is working hard. Sarries Chris Wyles threw out the first pitch at a Phillies game against the Miami Marlins; the Newcastle coach, David Walder, went to Genos Steaks to learn how to make and eat the citys cheesy signature dish. Some Philly sportswriters were even introduced to rugby skills, rules and terminology at a special AEG clinic.

They needed the primer. As the former USA head coach John Mitchell said this week, Philly is not a rugby city. Jonathan Tannenwald, the Major League Soccer writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, said: If you try to do much of anything in this town during football season, it risks getting drowned out.

The Eagles are in Missouri to face the Chiefs on Sunday but the bars and backpages are awash with debate about the head coach, Doug Pederson.

There isnt a lot of brand recognition for rugby here, Tannenwald said. Its different if its the US national team, because they have a travelling fan base plus the fan base of the other team. In November of 2013, the US played the Maori All Blacks here and sold the building out.

From the moment a typical Philly crowd greeted the haka with jeers and shouts of U-S-A, the Maori were given a fright. Bigger events followed in Chicago with the All Blacks, Australia and Ireland. In Europe, commercial directors took notice. This week, reports resurfaced of Pro14 plans to place a team on the east coast. I know they have been looking for a long time at how to develop the Pro14 footprint here, Hayes said. The key is to make sure you work in conjunction with the other union and with American players.

The USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne is in Philly this weekend, to see a fascinating game. Newcastle have beaten Worcester and Sale, but Sarries are a big step up.

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