Pro12 to continue ‘very positive’ USA expansion discussions

THE GUINNESS PRO12 plans to continue discussions with USA Rugby about potentially including American franchises in the competition in the future.

Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi also confirmed that the league may move to a conference system in the coming seasons, as he stressed the need for the top international stars to be involved in the competition as often as possible.

Connacht are the Pro12 holders. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Furthermore, Anayi and the Pro12 are keen for the number of games across the global rugby calendar to be reduced.

The Pro12 has drastically fallen behind France’s Top 14 and the English Premiership in terms of TV revenue in recent years, pushing Pro12 organisers to seek new ways to improve their product.

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The Pro12 currently earns around €14 million per season from the sale of its TV rights, a figure that is dwarfed by the €51 million of the Premiership and the eye-watering €97 million per season the LNR will earn from 2019.

Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago have been discussed as possible locations for a Pro12 expansion into the US, although Anayi stressed that the dialogue remains in an early state.

“The reality is that it might not get done. It might get to the point where it can’t be done logistically, for player welfare, other things. But at this time, it’s a very positive discussion.”

The discussions with USA Rugby and broadcasters in the US have been founded on the Pro12′s desire to “open horizons,” according to Anayi.

“The most amazing thing about the Pro12 is that it’s cross-border and that it’s got something different to the English and the French. It’s in our DNA to be cross-border and be expansionist, rather than look at contracting.

Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“If you take that philosophy forward and your unions are telling you that it’s the view they take and share, you start to look at other markets that might work.

“The US is definitely one of those, because it’s a huge primary market and has huge population, and massively-developed broadcasters. They’ve had a taste of it through the Olympics and there’s no reason we shouldn’t explore that further.”

Anayi stated his belief that the large Irish and Italian diasporas in the US mean a potential expansion onto American soil makes even more sense.

The Pro12 are keen to appeal to the Welsh and Irish diasporas in England as much as they can – luring new viewers on the Sky Sports platform to watch the league – but Anayi sees clear sense in aiming to capture American attention.

“There’s a massive Irish diaspora in America,” said Anayi. “We’re looking at what the potential attraction US rugby would have to us. There has been great interest for the Ireland – New Zealand game in Chicago, which is sold out, so there’s an interest, a Celtic interest.

“There are 19 million people in the US who have put down on their form that they are Irish-American. 19 million are Irish-American. There’s 12 million plus who think they’re Italian-American. I wouldn’t downplay how relevant a diaspora is.”

While Anayi was adamant that expansion is the way forward for the Pro12, he also argued that professional rugby players need to play fewer games.

He said such a move can go hand-in-hand with Test stars making more appearances in the Pro12. A move to a conference-system in the Pro12, meaning fewer regular season games but more play-off fixtures is one solution.

The Pro12 season was launched in Dublin yesterday. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“You need to see the international players playing [in the Pro12] more often, that is what will drive real growth in the club game,” said Anayi.

“But there’s got to be less rugby played. We’re trying to create a system with a conference format where you reduce the number of club games, but that’s also got to see the amount of international games reduced.

“Overall, the high-performance coaches, the players are saying, ‘You’re killing us. You’re hurting the progression of rugby by making us play more games.’ It would be crazy not to listen to that.

“You could go to a conference system with 12 teams and it would work well with the teams we’ve got, playing less games.

“We need to get the international players playing more often, that is the key. That’s why a Leinster fan will buy a season ticket, or a Connacht fan will buy a season ticket. They want to see their best players.”

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