Premiership in the USA: London Irish and Saracens prepare for landmark fixture

By Adam WilliamsBBC Sport
London Irish supporters
London Irish fans who do make the trip Stateside will swap the Madejski Stadium for the Red Bull Arena
Premiership: London Irish v Saracens
Venue: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey Date: Saturday 12 March Kick-off: 20:00 GMT Coverage: Full match commentary on BBC Radio Berkshire and BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app

"It's difficult to break the States. The Beatles managed it, One Direction got there, I think, and now it's Premiership Rugby's turn."

Those are the words of Premiership commercial director Dominic Hayes as the English game prepares to break new ground on Saturday when its first competitive fixture overseas kicks-off just half an hour from the bright lights of Manhattan and New York.

The location: The 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. The teams: London Irish and Saracens. The reason: To expand the game and bring it to new markets, according to the organisers.

But, despite being "a flagship game", there is still the simple matter of points at stake for both sides.

With just seven games remaining in the season, bottom-of-the-table London Irish's top-flight survival hangs by a thread, while Sarries are looking to consolidate their lead at the top.

Big Apple - big distraction?

London Irish, appropriately nicknamed the Exiles, will be the "home" side in New Jersey in front of what Premiership Rugby expects to be a crowd significantly populated by the "Irish diaspora" from greater New York and beyond.

London Irish players following defeat at Bath
Bottom-of-the-table London Irish have won just three games all season in the Premiership

But for a side eight points adrift at the bottom, and whose only Premiership victories this season have come at their regular Madejski Stadium home in Reading, a trip across the pond could be regarded as an unwanted distraction.

However, that is not the view of the coaches and players.

"It's a new experience for us," head coach Tom Coventry told BBC Sport following a 25-17 defeat at Bath on Saturday.

"We've got a big new fan base to meet in New York, which will be exciting," he added. "We're treading a new path and we'll use it as a motivating factor."

Coventry's opinion is shared by 19-year-old centre Johnny Williams, who only made his senior debut in November.

"I think it's a fantastic opportunity," he told BBC Radio Berkshire. "At the minute, our season's looking pretty negative. But, I think it's a positive thing, a breath of fresh air.

"I think it will be good for team morale to get out there for team bonding."

What about the existing fan base at home?

For many supporters, a trans-Atlantic trip will be too expensive - and some London Irish season ticket-holders may be questioning why a game was taken away from their usual home allocation.

"It's quite exciting to be part of this and go overseas for a game," supporters club treasurer Steve Jones told BBC Sport.

"It is one less game on the season ticket and ultimately, some value's been taken away from that.

"Undoubtedly, it's not cheap for a supporter to go to New York. But, there's been a number of travel packages put forward by the club to suit a few budgets.

"A lot of people are making their own way there, having managed to find deals."

Exact numbers of supporters from both clubs who will board flights to the States are unknown because of those making their own arrangements. Estimates vary from anything between 500 to 2,000.

Treading a path others will follow?

Premiership Rugby will be content with a matchday crowd of anything above 15,000, with the vast majority of those attending US-based.

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
The 25,000-capacity Red Bull Arena is also home to MLS franchise New York Red Bulls

The game has been more than a year in the planning and is set to be the first of several fixtures in the States in years to come.

"This isn't a brand new concept," said commercial director Hayes.

"It's something NFL and NBA have been doing the opposite way round for a few years now.

"Since we announced we were doing it [in October], we've certainly had some interest from various other sporting bodies to say, 'what have you done and how have you done it?'"

The "other sporting bodies" include Pro12 Rugby, who run the British Isles' other league competition between clubs from the Celtic nations and Italy.

"At this stage, it's just interest," managing director Martin Anayi said.

"We've been pretty open and said the US is a really interesting market that is relevant to the Celtic audience.

"The GAA (Gaelic Football) goes over there every year and has been very successful in New York.

"We'll be looking on very much with interest. From a Pro12 perspective, at the moment, we need to concentrate on improving the game at home."

Bidding to break America

While a meeting of top v bottom between Irish and Saracens might not grab much attention at home at the same time as a pivotal Six Nations weekend, Premiership Rugby have pulled out the stops to sell Saturday's game to the US.

The New York build-up to St Patrick's Day, plus the presence of North American internationals on both sides in the shape of Saracens' Chris Wyles and Titi Lamositele from the USA and London Irish's Canada pair of Ciaran Hearn and Jebb Sinclair, have given advertisers extra "hooks".

Premiership Rugby have paired up with the same promoters who brought the All Blacks to Chicago's Soldier Field to play USA in November 2014 and who will host the World Cup winners against Ireland this November, again in the Windy City.

Fans at the Las Vegas World Rugby Sevens
US-based rugby fans soaked up the atmosphere at last week's World Sevens tournament in Las Vegas

Perhaps most significant is that their first venture into the US marketplace has been boosted by securing a television rights deal for the Irish v Saracens fixture with terrestrial broadcaster NBC.

After Saturday, the package will see England's top flight competition broadcast weekly across America from next season.

"That's really the building block of establishing the brand Stateside," explained Hayes.

But talk of taking the Premiership to other corners of the globe is premature.

"Other markets, they're certainly worth considering," he added.

"But, I think one step at a time and we'll focus on the US and getting it right in America."

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