Bringing sports to America

23:28, Jul 28 2013

Yesterday, I read an article on Stuff speculating that the All Blacks might be exploring setting up a test in San Francisco for November.

I was thrilled at the thought. I would definitely pony up for a ticket to an All Blacks game. I'd probably buy LP one, too, to keep me company. She doesn't like rugby, but she finds the lineouts fascinating.

A few hours later I had reconsidered my angle. The American sports market is a tough sell. 

Recently, a few All Blacks - Conrad Smith, Cory Jane, Victor Vito and Aaron Smith - came to San Francisco as part of a promotion Air New Zealand was doing, giving away a trip to New Zealand at a San Francisco Giants baseball game. Corporate connections obviously meant that said All Blacks got some plum introductions here, running through batting practice with a Giants pitcher.

I knew about this trip through talking to other New Zealanders and reading local media. I saw not a single item of media attention given to them in San Francisco. Americans could probably name more New Zealand musicians than rugby players. There are two points of fascinations with rugby here: that players pass the ball backwards, and that they don't wear shoulder pads.

I know that American company AIG is now the All Blacks' shirt sponsor and this is part of the reason this West Coast fixture is being speculated upon.


What would an All Blacks game in San Francisco achieve? It would probably serve only as expat outreach. The competition for sports dollars and attention spans here is brutal. Come November, on any given weekend the San Francisco 49ers football team will be playing, the Golden State Warriors basketball team will be starting their season and the San Jose Sharks hockey team also. 

New Zealand playing, say, Australia is going to be a curiosity at best, a corporate spectacle for a sponsor to show off with little ongoing benefit for New Zealand rugby.

Still, I say come and play. I'd like to sit in the stands at AT&T Park downtown, drink a beer or two and get wistful about home. Just don't expect to be the hottest ticket in town. Expats will come and the locals who were already crazy about the sport. You're probably not making new fans.

I think that the current fate of the America's Cup is a testament to the difficulty in dropping an established sporting culture in the middle of a foreign town and expecting it to take.

Setting aside the format squabbles, legal wrangling and solo racing, the America's Cup itself has drummed up little internal fervour. The America's Cup Park is stationed just around from Fisherman's Wharf, in the biggest tourist trap in the city, but the mood barely gets a notch or two above "sleepy" and "reserved". Even the inflated visitor numbers published by the America's Cup organisation put the park as the third or fourth most visited spot on the Embarcadero. Larry Ellison and his "American" team Oracle hold the Cup, but I've not found a single person who is particularly proud of that fact nor anyone who is rooting passionately for Oracle to defend it. People don't seem to like Ellison that much, either. Americans don't sail in such numbers as children. The rich people own the coastline.

The indifference is a shame, because the cup has a proud tradition, the boats are awesome beyond words and Team New Zealand is packed full of industry-leading minds, world-class athletes and general innovators.

San Francisco will serve as a footnote, a warning to future America's Cup holders to stick with cities where there's already devout interest.

Cricket's ridiculous modern history in America, littered with a run of big dollar efforts to get a professional league off the ground, an IPL-type model to wow the locals, has amounted only in a graveyard of failure, bankruptcy and more bored shrugs. It's embarrassing, the continual apathy and derision cricket has been subjected to in America. It's a confusing sport for any non-native and the only way it's ever going to grow is gradually over decades with expats keeping the culture alive and strengthening the niche foothold it has.

You can't just drop a sport in and expect people to go for it.

The sports New Zealanders like say a lot about our own history and culture, our geography, our British heritage. America is no different.

Sport and why we like it is more complicated than some basic entertainment we watch for enjoyment. Getting Americans to like rugby is a lot more complex than getting them to like a new season of Mad Men.

Maybe I'm overthinking it? I do feel like history is on my side.    

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