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Volume 21 No. 2
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Secret weapon in Irish rugby bid: U.S.

The Irish bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup is making an unconventional argument: Hosting the tournament in Ireland can help the sport get a foothold in the lucrative U.S. market.

Seeking to distinguish itself from rivals South Africa and France, which offers the biggest host market of the three, Ireland is selling the Irish Diaspora — the 35 million Irish-Americans who often have close ties to the Emerald Isle and another 35 million people worldwide who claim Irish heritage.

“The importance of the North American market for rugby is truly significant,” said Philip Browne, CEO of the Irish Rugby Football Union. “If rugby truly wants to become a global sport, it needs to get rugby operating at a different level in the U.S.”

The Irish national team has participated in two of the best-attended rugby matches ever played in the U.S., including when 64,000 people watched Ireland beat New Zealand at Soldier Field in 2016.

“You don’t hear about French-Americans, or South African-Americans, but you do hear about Irish-Americans,” Browne said. “We have this network. It’s not aspirational. It’s something the Irish state has tapped into for years.”

An Ireland-New Zealand rugby match drew 64,000 to Chicago’s Soldier Field in 2016
GETTY IMAGES
If Ireland wins the Rugby World Cup vote in November, the host committee would begin planning programming in the U.S. with USA Rugby, Browne said. It’s been discussed with both USA Rugby and the governing body in Canada, where an additional 5 million members of the diaspora live.

USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne and David Sternberg, CEO of the national governing body’s for-profit marketing arm, Rugby International Marketing, declined to comment, citing the need to remain neutral in the bid race.

Fundamentally, the competitiveness of the American team will drive the popularity of rugby in the U.S., said Michael Principe, CEO of TLA Worldwide, which promoted an Ireland-U.S. match in New Jersey in June that drew 22,370 fans. “That being said, the Irish-American community has an affinity to Ireland, and if it’s positioned as part culture [and] part sport, it has more specific relevance,” Principe said.

NBC Sports signed a deal with World Rugby earlier this year for U.S. rights to all World Cup events, including both genders and the seven-player version, through 2023. The U.S. will host the World Cup Sevens in San Francisco in 2018.

Browne said the Irish would tap into their network of Irish-American sports and cultural enthusiasts to promote viewership, awareness and travel to the event itself. But he also thinks Ireland is well suited to build a global sponsorship program because of its connections in corporate America and Dublin’s role as the de facto European headquarters for major American tech companies Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others.

“That network allows us to actually put together a global commercial program anchored out of Ireland, using our network across the Irish Diaspora,” Browne said.

Tim Crow, CEO of London-based Synergy, a major consultant in rugby marketing, granted Browne’s premise that Ireland would perhaps generate more interest in the U.S. than France or South Africa. But he said other factors are more important to World Rugby’s decision, namely the politically significant aspect of the Irish bid relying on stadiums normally used for the Gaelic Athletic Association. (For many years, the GAA banned non-Irish sports in its venues, and rugby is still associated by some Irish with British rule.)

“Ireland’s looking for a ‘Mandela moment,’” Crow said, referring to the 1995 World Cup in South Africa soon after apartheid ended.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup is set for Japan, and England hosted in 2015, leading most observers to believe South Africa is the likely choice by voters because of an informal convention of rotating continents. But South Africa’s severe economic problems bring that expectation into doubt.