Very few people associate rugby with the United States. The national team has not done much on the international stage and there is no national professional league to speak of. But as the fastest-growing sport in the country, things could quickly change.
By Roxane Coche
The eighth Rugby World Cup has begun and among the 20 nations that will hit the fields of England, the United States Eagles are hoping to qualify for the knockout stage for the first time. The Americans have so far won only three World Cup games: against Japan in 1987 and 2003, and Russia in 2011. Even so, we shouldn’t dismiss the Eagles lightly.
Rugby is on the rapid rise in the US and – as we have seen with soccer – it could soon become a force to be reckoned with at league and international level.
Considering that a decade ago, rugby in the US hardly existed, the sport is now flexing its muscles. Data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association shows that the number of rugby players in the United States doubled between 2008 and 2013, reaching almost 1.2 million. This, according to the same data, makes rugby the fastest-growing sport in the United States.
Not only are participants on the rise, but tournaments and structures are now available to those who want to play competitively. In rugby sevens, a Collegiate Rugby Championship has been organised in partnership with NBC Sports every year since 2010, and the HSBC World Sevens Series has played in Las Vegas every year since 2004/05. Attendance for the latter has mushroomed, from 15,800 in 2004 to 75,800 last March.
And – as soccer did with the MLS – US rugby is also launching its own professional league; the National Rugby Football League (NRFL) will launch in 2017, with an exhibition series starting next year.
Internationally, the US has been a constant figure in world rugby, missing only one World Cup ten years ago. As the international standard of play has improved, so have the Eagles. The triumph of the rugby sevens team in the London Sevens at Twickenham last year proves it.
How has this happened? USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville says that initiatives targeting the youth market were introduced as early as 2008. In order to make parents understand the game, which is widely perceived in the US as a violent sport played with no protective gear, USA Rugby had six to 12-year-olds play a non-contact version called Rookie Rugby (known as touch rugby in the UK).
Since 2008, Melville says, “more than two million kids have been through the programme across 43 state rugby organisations.” This, he explains, “has created great momentum for the sport” as those first children have now grown up to play in high school and college. Even though there is “still a long way to go,” Melville is confident that these programmes “will keep developing with more and better coaches and referees, and of course players.”
Today, USA Rugby is focusing on commercialising the sport. For that purpose, a new commercial entity, Rugby International Marketing (RIM) was created. Melville explains that this “‘for-profit’ company will grow commercial activities to fund the game, and improve the visibility of the sport on TV and on a new digital channel, Over the Top.”
Melville’s objectives for the sport are clear: keep growing, increase its visibility and earn revenue. And toward these goals, USA Rugby can count on one of the sport’s wealthiest national boards: the RFU has become a minority shareholder and strategic partner in RIM. This could be a win-win for the English governing body, which has been trying to expand its global brand.
Yet, the battle is far from won for USA Rugby. The game is very different from American sports, with a rhythm that many US sports fans will find hard to adjust to. Not only does a rugby match not allow the audience to take a break and microwave popcorn during play, but it also lacks the drama most Americans crave in entertainment. American football has dramatic sprints and dives, baseball has dramatic slides and catches, basketball has dramatic dunks and blocks, and hockey has dramatic hits and shots. They may be few and far between, but they are still the reason why Americans watch those sports. The chopped rhythm only helps build the drama.
In other words, while American sports are made up of short but possibly very thrilling plays, rugby, much like football, is about endurance. Convincing a fan of American sports to watch a rugby match is similar to convincing a fan of Usain Bolt to sit through a marathon or even just a 10,000-meter run. Easier said than done… But not impossible. And that is what motivates those who wish to see the sport grow even more drastically in the United States. Ask Melville to describe what to expect for rugby in the United States and he’ll answer you unequivocally: “an exciting future.”
Roxane Coche is Assistant Professor of Journalism at the University of Memphis and a US sports consultant to Stadia Solutions.