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USA Rugby negotiated the release of several Aviva Premiership Eagles for the All Blacks game in exchange for them not being available for the USA’s fall tour, during which the Eagles play Romania, Tonga and Fiji. Was the three-for-one trade a good one?
It’s a very nuanced question, as there is a lot at play. I’ll set the table by talking about the magnitude of the game, first.
It’s a sellout, which will net USA Rugby its biggest test match payday of all time. Even though USA Rugby won’t reap the same financial benefit it would have if it had sold the game out on its own, instead of partnerning with the Legacy Agency, the event will still produce a significant amount of revenue. Going into an expensive World Cup year, that’s important.
It’s on national television. NBC will air the game live at 3pm CST on Nov. 1. That’s phenomenal, but it does go head-to-head against college football. How many mainstream media members or sports fans will forego Florida, Georgia, Ohio State or USC football (all play during that time slot Nov. 1) to watch rugby? Keep in mind the NBA will be in its second weekend, too, hogging some ink.
I’m not trying to tear down the game. I’m as excited as anyone to be there. I think there are hugely positive takeaways, no matter the ratings or final score. But, to pretend like this game alone will flip football fans, have Reggie Bush trying out for the 7s team and turn Samu Manoa into a household name, is a touch dramatic.
I devoted a column to it some months ago, but the Eagles played the All Blacks in front of a record crowd in an NFL Stadium live on ESPN in 1980. The game got a nice, big write-up in Sports Illustrated – impressive media coverage then or now. Yet, no one looks at 1980 as some major watershed year for American rugby. No one says, ‘after that game, that’s when it all changed.’
I suspect they won’t look back at the All Blacks game of 2014 and say that, either. But if they do, it will be because the game, along with sizeable crowds at near-full stadiums in Houston, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Las Vegas, proved people are willing to pay money to watch rugby here.
USA Rugby has already announced its intention to bid for the 2018 7s World Cup. Aviva Premiership officials are expected to be on hand Nov. 1, and there are rumors about a potential American venture for the Premiership in the future. If there’s any weight to those rumors, or if the USA has any chance of hosting the 7s World Cup, this game will drive home the point that sports, even rugby now, sell in America.
So, while this game is huge for American rugby, I think it’s important not to let expectations soar too far into the stratosphere. It’s also important to consider the possible negative outcomes. What if the Eagles lose 67-5 like in 2011 against Australia, 77-3 like in 2005 against Wales, 83-3 like in 2000 against Ireland, or 106-8 like in 1999 against England? Will the Eagles have won over the media and average sports fan for rugby, then? It’s possible a result like that would set rugby back in the minds of some.
I have not confirmed that the IRB is upset with the deal Melville brokered with the Aviva Premiership, but those rumblings are out there, despite the fact that Melville has denied there is any bad blood. And it doesn’t take much of a leap to see why the IRB wouldn’t care for a deal that flies in the face of its Regulation 9, which is put in place to protect international rugby. But, if the IRB is upset, then USA Rugby has bit the hand that feeds, per se, as USA Rugby counts on IRB grants for a significant amount of funding.
If it turns out the IRB is upset with the deal, any repercussions aren’t likely to be made public. Still, I think this is a potential story line worth considering.
World Rankings matter, especially to the rankings-crazed American sports fans and media we’re hoping the All Blacks game attracts to rugby. Currently, Iran’s basketball team is ranked closer to Team USA in the FIBA rankings than the Eagles are to the All Blacks in the IRB’s rankings. That’s no bueno, and the only way to climb the world rankings is by winning rankings tests. Losing the likes of Blaine Scully, Chris Wyles and Samu Manoa for three of them in November won’t help.
We are now within 12 months of the start of the Rugby World Cup. Every game is pivotal for the lead-up, as the USA still trails the top contenders when it comes to assembly time. Taking away the team’s best players for three games, in exchange for their presence in one, equals less assembly time.
So, was the three-for-one trade a good one? The truth might sound like a cop out, but we won’t know until the games are played. USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville has made a wager. He’s betting on the presence of the Premiership Eagles helping secure positive results.
At best, the USA gets a score line and a competitiveness American fans, media and potential sponsors can recognize and be proud of on Nov. 1st, the less-than-full-metal-jacket Eagles win at least two on tour, and the team isn’t harmed by less assembly. Maybe a couple of diamonds in the rough are revealed by opportunity.
At worst, the All Blacks wind up with a point total worthy of a basketball game, and the Eagles are left in single digits despite the trade, the USA wins less than two games on tour, the lack of assembly time hurts the Eagles in the World Cup, and the IRB is really peeved by the move.
Let’s hope for the best.