PRO12 plans to expand with US Franchise

  • Towards the end of the season in May 2016, the new PR012 CEO, Martin Anayi gave several media interviews on his proposals for where the PRO12 needs to go to cope with changes in rugby within Six Nations and globally. The PRO 12 is a inter-national league involving 12 teams drawn from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
    Anayi identified and acknowledged a number of the issues raised by PRO12 clubs’ CEOs and fans including the need for increase in TV monies, improved match-day attendances, league marketing and branding, the standard of refereeing, season structure and test window matches, scheduling of season matches/kick-off times including Sunday games, European competitions, player welfare/concussion, and creating more “Big Event" weekends to generate crowds.
    Anayi has met with all of the PRO12 CEOs over the last season to discuss issues and get feedback on a number of proposals that would mark out the future for the PRO 12 and its member unions.
    From various media interviews and reports it would appear a number of key decisions are being considered by PRO 12 and its 12 member clubs along with their representative organisations and unions. In summary, these would appear to include:

    • Changes to season scheduling to make it more accessible, consistent, and appealing to fans across the four unions territories starting from next season 2016/17. (The new schedule was published two days ago).
    • Further investment in a referee development programme to deal with issues/perceptions of bias and neutrality for league fixtures
    • Stronger and more localised marketing and promotion of league games by the PRO12 and by the individual clubs to attract fans to games and make it more appealing to broadcasters.
    • More promotion and stronger branding/marketing of games by TV partners
    • Changing the structure of the league from home & away 22 games to a shorter conference/pool structure that can accommodate more teams in the future from other unions/territories e.g. North America and South Africa, with East Coast of America being the first target to develop a franchise with operational and coaching expertise being provided by the four unions.
    • Development of Big Event Weekends to drive crowd numbers, create a more appealing product for TV companies/sponsors, and generate more revenues for the PRO12
    • Reduce number of games played during season and re-structure so that no "league" games are played during the test windows in November and Feb/March
    • Consequently, this would allow a greater proportion of league games to have test players involved and increase quality of product.
    • During test windows, the PRO CEOs want rugby to continue, and a revised development competition is being proposed for these periods for development of academy and young players within squads not involved in test rugby. This may involve changes to the British & Irish Cup and the Anglo-Wlesh Cup. One report indicates that English Premier Rugby may be interested in discussing the creation of a British & Irish development cup to replace the current AW Cup that would attract increased sponsorship and TV money than currently.
      It's clear that changes need to occur for the PRO12. The current structure and set-up is neither sufficient nor sustainable. The most recent comments on this came this week from the CEO of the IRFU, Phillip Browne, in publishing their annual report.
      In the Report, Browne made a number of comments on the changes occurring in the European game due to the massive increases in TV deals in England and France that will place greater focus for the IRFU on development pathways to nurture domestic talent, changes needed for the PRO12, and the curtailing of the provinces buying foreign players in the future."There is no question that the Provinces should continue to aspire to European success but expectations may need to be tempered in the new financial reality that has emerged, driven by the huge television rights fees generated in the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 tournaments, along with the increasing levels of private investment in professional clubs in those leagues. The attendant risks to the Irish professional game are potentially profound and one of the key mitigation strategies is to invest in our pathway to develop better quality players more quickly through a more effective pathway - a key element of the new High Performance strategy. There is no doubt that we have the athletic potential in Ireland, the key is to be more effective in how we “mine” and develop that potential.
      An extension of this new European order is the difficulty that faces the PRO12 as a competition operating in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales – three rugby markets which are a fraction the size of those in England and France. The Italian market has not really delivered, not helped by the poor performances of the Italian teams and what appears to be a lack of investment in those teams. Change is required if the PRO12 is to remain a meaningful tournament. 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.
      Alongside the theme of change sits finance.... Much of the IRFU revenue generated around the international game is contracted out for the next number of years, the IRFU sponsorship portfolio has little scope for growth, attendances at the Aviva Stadium are - by and large- at capacity. A similar situation pertains in most of the Provinces, albeit there is still some scope for uplift in attendances. New sources of income continue to be explored along with innovative ways of repackaging our commercial portfolio to generate increased revenues. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the professional game in Ireland can no longer rely on the IRFU being the “lender of last resort” as the IRFU no longer has the capacity to absorb the increasing cost of the professional game as the Provinces struggle to respond to the inflating player market in England and France. This means that the IRFU and the Provinces will have to be more clever and effective in the use of available resources and financial prudence will require that Irish rugby must live within its means."
      Browne went on to indicate the days of bringing in players such as Rocky Elson, Isa Nacewa, Doug Howlett, or more recently, Charles Piutau, are effectively over. "The provinces simply can't go out into the global market place and expect to pick up world-class players with the budgets they have. It is better value for us to invest in the pathway. To produce our own players. We simply can't compete with what is happening in France."
      Due to the RWC, the IRFU reported a surplus of €5m for the year which allows them to give a €2m grant divided equally to the four provincial teams over two years to help them compete on player salaries.
      Even though the PRO12 is expected to make an announcement in the next few weeks about its long-term strategy to develop the league, Browne gave a detailed response when asked about possible expansion to other countries. "The East coast of the US, why not?... 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."
      Alongside the US, reports also indicate there is potential to involved one or more teams from South Africa, possibly containing players who may wish to move to Europe anyway. This would form part of Anayi's plans to develop more conferences for the PRO12 as they build from 2018 onwards.
      Martin Anayi seems to have got his feet under the table in pretty short order and so far seems to be walking the walk in his vision for the future.
      Let's see what happens next.

  • If they want South African teams they could have the Kings...
    Working into the North American market seems a logical move. Be interesting to watch developments.

  • If they want South African teams they could have the Kings...
    Working into the North American market seems a logical move. Be interesting to watch developments.

    I'm sure they could create two teams of exiles at this stage.

  • Interesting interview with Martin Anayi, CEO of PRO12 Rugby, at the launch of the new season today. His comments on the possible US expansion and desired changes in the global season and Six Nations could split the assumed togetherness of the six main NH unions.
    "Guinness Pro12 bosses have confirmed they have been in negotiations with rugby chiefs on the other side of the Atlantic about opening a new frontier in the United States.
    The Pro12 hierarchy sees north America as a potential route to generating more broadcasting and sponsorship revenue in their bid to close the gap on the cash-laden French Top 14 and Aviva Premiership in terms of popularity and financial clout.
    They want to use the lure of Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster, Treviso and Zebre to tap into the large Irish and Italian communities on the eastern seaboard of the States.
    Rugby is growing in popularity in the USA, with a new domestic league having been established, while world champions New Zealand’s primary sponsor, the insurance giant AIG, has created an annual fixture in Chicago.
    The Sevens tournament at the Olympics has also resulted in a surge in interest.
    A record 61,500 fans watched Steve Hansen’s All Blacks take on the USA Eagles at Soldier Field in 2014, while Ireland will play the world champs there in November.
    And an Aviva Premiership match was taken to New York last season, with London Irish facing Saracens in front of a 15,000 crowd at the Red Bull Arena.
    Guinness Pro12 chief executive Martin Anayi said: “We’ve had really early discussions with USA Rugby, broadcasters, sponsors, and consulted internally with our teams and shareholders.
    “Everyone’s saying the same thing... that if it’s good for the tournament across a whole range of areas like player welfare, commercially, and for the fans then we should explore how far we can take it.
    “Initial discussions are really good. They believe in the same things we do, one of which is that the only way for a tier two nation to become a tier one nation is through professional club rugby because there is no scope to expand the international calendar for the USA to play more games.
    “Does it work from a logistics perspective and will the players travel? We haven’t even got to that level of discussion.
    “But they’ve got exactly the same situation as us with a passionate fan base and union control of the club game, but small markets.
    ”It’s how they are going to capitalise on that and how they do it. Is it through a national league and a professional franchise?
    “Do you do it through us or SANZAAR (South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina)?
    “I think northern hemisphere rugby suits the American psyche, they are more northern hemisphere orientated.
    “The growth areas are Boston, New York and Philadelphia, where the Celts and the Italians are.”
    Pro12 chiefs haven’t put a time-scale on the talks with the Americans but Anayi believes a key factor would be whether agreement can be reached on a global season.
    “You’ve got to talk about why is it that we’re losing a huge proportion of international players, not week-in and week-out but for big chunks of the season,” he said.
    “Intersperse that with European club rugby as well and you get quite a disjointed season. It’s quite hard to follow and then also becomes less of a reason to buy a season ticket.”
    He maintained the Pro12 would benefit from the Six Nations being held in April and May, rather than in February and March, as it is now.
    “We think there’s a simple solution to the global season, which is to push the Six Nations back a bit and get the club season in before it. That would also tie in with European rugby."
    “The Six Nations is critically important for the finance of the game. My opinion and those I’ve spoken to in the broadcast industry is you would get the Six Nations in before the Champions League final, and it doesn’t go into BBC territory for The Open, Wimbledon and the Olympics.
    “And it’s the simplest route for us to get to what we want to, which is a club season and an international season. That’s how we’ll generate more fans.”
    “We are really, really sure about our future and about how successful club rugby can be globally if we can just get our international players playing consistently.”

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