Unless you were under a rock you’ve seen the reports that have the All Blacks playing a match in the U.S. next November ahead of their tour of Europe. The team made a similar tour to Japan last November and are now seeking to take it to a different level by tapping into the U.S. market. It doesn’t hurt that their major sponsor AIG also wants them to tap into U.S. money.
According to the latest reports the match is set for either Washington, D.C., or Chicago. The match had originally been intended for New York, the home of AIG, but with two NFL teams occupying MetLife Stadium the date in question couldn’t work. Also in the latest reports the All Blacks will be taking on the Eagles, not a World XV that had been mentioned previously. We think that is a positive. There is a lot going on in American rugby right now and it needs a big moment to take it further.
Anyone who has paid attention over the last two years has seen a huge growth in attendance at Eagles matches. First it was Italy in Houston in 2012 followed by Ireland in the same venue the next year. Most recent it was the raucous sold-out crowd that turned out to watch the Eagles take on the Maori All Blacks. Each of those match drew over 17,000 people with the match against Ireland drawing more than 20,000. Prior to that the biggest match saw 16,000 turn out to watch the Springboks in 2001. Aside from that match attendances have been pretty paltry.
Those huge crowds drew much needed attention to the team. They were mentioned on the Today Show and other large media outlets. However, they missed out on drawing the attention of the biggest show in town: ESPN. It was great the Maori match air on delay on Fox Sports 1 but if you truly want to make it big in this country you need to appear on ESPN. It has only been recently that the U.S. Men’s Soccer team has made it on to the channel regularly. A match against the full All Blacks in a venue like Solider Field or FedEx Field would certainly get the attention of ESPN and while it may not get the coverage of other sports, the novelty of the event, crowd size, and the opponent would almost certainly be put on SportsCenter.
Grabbing the attention of the average sports fan is what is needed to take rugby to another level in this country. Youth participation is growing, we’re producing professionals, and the rugby community is growing to the size that it can fill stadiums once or twice a year, but unless we can tap into news fans it’s all limited. To truly be relevant in this country you have to get good crowds in big stadiums. The All Blacks will do that.
Getting more butts in the seats is a crucial need for the Eagles. The recent large crowds have been a huge boon to the program in that it offers additional revenue aside from U.S.A. Rugby member dues. Ask almost anyone in the rugby community about their dues and you are going to receive a lively answer. It’s a contentious issue, especially for people who don’t want to see their dues go to the national teams. If the Eagles can pay for themselves with the assistance of IRB grants, U.S.A. Rugby will have more money to focus on other areas, like getting more kids to play rugby. More fans will stop griping over dues.
According to the latest report one of the conditions for the All Blacks agreeing to play the Eagles rather than a World XV is that U.S.A Rugby underwrites the costs of the match. The All Blacks would then split the gate revenue and sponsorship with the Eagles. It’s a risk, but a relatively safe one when considering that the All Blacks are the biggest names in rugby. Renting out one of the two stadiums in question and properly promoting the match will take more money that U.S.A. Rugby has spent in the past. But with a crowd nearly double or even triple what they’ve had in the past it could be a windfall for the program. Additionally, the attention gained from the match could bleed over into larger attendances at other matches.
Overall, there is a lot of positive things that could happen from the All Blacks taking on the Eagles. Playing a World XV might draw in a nice one-off crowd but it won’t help push forward the long-term growth of rugby in America. Only a match against the Eagles would do that. We think it’s paramount that it happen.
Do you think the All Blacks vs Eagles match will happen? Will it be a boon for USA Rugby? Or will it end up costing more than it is worth?