Fresh from their winning escapades in New Jersey, Saracens CEO Heath Harvey outlines the footprint they're hoping to achieve and it goes far wider than Barnet
By Graham Jenkins
“We don’t just want to be a north London rugby club; we want to use rugby to change people’s lives”
Saracens chief executive Heath Harvey’s bold proclamation may sound as if it has been lifted from a Hollywood script but witness his enthusiasm first hand and you may struggle to question his sincerity.
The Premiership champions are intent on making their mark not only in English rugby’s top flight but around the globe with Harvey now the driving force behind the Saracens Global Network – ‘nine rugby union clubs in five continents, sharing the same name, values and ambition’.
Leading clubs in Brazil, Russia, Romania, Malaysia, Georgia, Tonga, Kenya, the UAE and the United States are all benefitting from Saracens’ expertise and desire to grow both the game and their brand.
“We are shameless,” admits Harvey, who took the helm at Allianz Park last summer following the departure of Edward Griffiths, “we want people to know our brand around the world.”
He added: “It is not a land grab or about getting to emerging territories first as I think there are enough of those in the game for everyone.
“Our strategy with regards to our global network is to go where rugby is on the rise, into emerging markets where people need our help.”
Harvey was speaking on the eve of his side’s Premiership clash with London Irish in New York City – the first competitive fixture to be staged outside of England.
Sarries were playing a supporting role but it was one they were more than happy to accept given the opportunity to raise awareness of their own brand and bolster the work they are already doing in the country.
“We have nine affiliate clubs around the world in the Saracens Global Network and Seattle Saracens are very much at the pinnacle of those nine clubs,” explained Harvey, who was fresh from a visit to the west coast.
“They are US champions and they are looking to us for help to take their game to the next level,” said Harvey, “but all the clubs look to us for different things.
“In the case of Seattle, they may look to us for strength and conditioning expertise, video analysis or another advanced element of professional rugby and it is wonderful to go over there and see the appetite there is for rugby.”
Saracens proved too strong for Irish in their showpiece fixture, claiming a 26-16 victory in front of 14,811 fans at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and they look set to return for a similar event next year.
But a fondness for breaking the mould is something we have become used to with Saracens in recent years.
“We have always been an innovative brand in rugby we have always pushed the envelope with big games at Wembley for example,” explained Harvey. “We have always taken on things that are perhaps slightly out of our league but look how much we have grown into it over the years.
“Coming to New York was completely in our comfort zone. We didn’t need to be invited twice to help rugby grow in one of the key developing territories and markets.”
Harvey is particularly excited by the potential offered by the United States to both his club and the sport in general but is aware that they both face a battle to establish themselves in an already crowded market.
“It will always be hard to cut through American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey but we also have plenty to cut through in the UK with Premier League football every week and that does not stop rugby being an incredible success,” he insists, “and I think the same thing is going to happen over here, it is only a matter of time.
“Rugby will probably develop in pockets rather then nationally and it will probably on occasion take one step forward and two steps back. But rugby is a gladiatorial sport, it is hard and fast and an impressive spectacle, and there is a lot of that in American football too which people love.”
So successful have been Saracens’ efforts to grow the game – and the club’s reputation – their reach stretches significantly beyond their Hendon home and even the extensive reach of the network.
“We were down in Cape Town last month at one of the projects that we support,” explains Harvey. “Little kids were running up to us in the townships saying, ‘When I grow up I want to play for Saracens’ and this is in a country where rugby is a religion.”
As heart-warming and welcome that adulation, there is another major, and arguably more important, by-product of their off-field endeavour.
“When I go into the city to talk to a potential new sponsor they don’t look at us and see just a north London rugby club only capable of reaching people within a 25 miles radius of our ground,” explains Harvey.
“They acknowledge that we have a presence around the world. They say, ‘You have a club in Moscow, Kuala Lumpar, Brazil, USA and we have offices in a lot of those places too’. So we can leverage what we have to offer to a broader audience.”
That translates into larger sponsorship deals and greater revenue. “It’s a genuine two-way street,” emphasised Harvey.
It would also appear that the club that many would have you believe struggles to make friends could actually give relationship guidance.
“What’s changed in the last three to six months is clubs have been contacting us,” he added. “It’s no longer us trying to grow the global network anymore.
“If we stopped where we were today we would be very happy, but now we have got big clubs coming to us, saying that they can see the benefits of being part of our network and want to have a conversation – and that is really exciting.”