John Mitchell, who guided the US Eagles into the same 2019 World Cup pool as England, has a forensic knowledge of rugby in America and believes taking Saracens’ Premiership clash with Newcastle to Philadelphia on Saturday is a “waste of time” as a way of boosting interest in the sport.
Mitchell quit as Eagles coach in May after securing direct qualification for the World Cup in Japan and is now director of rugby at the Blue Bulls in South Africa having previously been England forwards coach and then head coach with the All Blacks. Mitchell supports plans to grow the game in America, however, he is adamant Premiership rugby would make a much greater impact by sticking to the established rugby areas.
Sarries include former US Eagles captain Chris Wyles and current test prop Titi Lamositele but they are not household names in American sport where NHL, baseball, basketball and ice hockey dominate.
In March 2016 , London Irish played Saracens at the Red Bull Arena, home of MLS side New York Red Bulls and at the same time NBC were announced as the Premiership’s media rights partner in the United States in a three-year deal, with a further two-year option. Ensuring there is a crowd at the game in Philadelphia and an engaged television audience is crucial to any expansion plan for the sport but Mitchell fears this could a missed opportunity.
Speaking from South Africa, he told Standard Sport: “These one off games, in my view, are good in areas of America where there is a rugby population like New York where we had close to a 25,000 crowd for the US v Ireland test. You need to take these games where rugby is strong because it is a total waste of time if you don’t. I don’t know enough about Philadelphia, but my feeling is that it isn’t a rugby populous. The North East, Mid-West, Texas and parts of California, that is where the rugby interest is.
“The seagull approach, as I call it, will never work in the US and it has to be about long term relationships and that means more frequent contact. I don’t get the logic of going to Philadelphia. If you go to those stronger areas you will get repeat crowds coming to the matches.
“The NFL has just started and the baseball is also getting lots of coverage and I think USA Rugby spread their resources too wide and if they have a vision to generate revenue for the game then go to your markets. Then when teams like Saracens and Newcastle come over they can hold coaching clinics in those areas in the colleges and clubs. A lot of these Premiership are also interested in recruiting American talent and that is part of their strategic planning and they should be spending time in areas where that can be achieved.
“In my time with the US team, we got a reasonable crowd when we played in Houston, games in Austin also got good numbers plus San Diego which is small stadium. The biggest was that game in New York while the Glendale Raptors in Colorado get good support. I would definitely be taking the Premiership games to those kind of areas. “
Premiership rugby chose Philadelphia on the advice of Dan Lyle, the former Bath and Eagles No8 who works for AEG. Premiership rugby wanted an East coast venue to help with the time difference, a city that was small enough to make an impact and somewhere they had held rugby before.
Lamositele, the Sarries prop, believes US rugby can build on this match and explained: “A lot of Americans I think are leaning towards rugby now, they really appreciate the tackling side of the game. Sport is a major part of being American and I think rugby can really grow. There are some diehard fans out there who love rugby and let’s hope we can generate even more of those type of fans for future generations to come.”
Getting a US based professional team into the Pro14 competition which now includes South African sides, is, according to Mitchell, one of way of really making an impact. He added: “The US needs a domestic Pro team that is playing the games not overseas clubs. I would centralise contracts in the US with World Rugby funding and have the clubs and colleges feeding into that so you can then attract players back from overseas contracts.
“ There is talk about a US team entering the Pro 14 and that is the way I would approach it. “