Can Rugby Really Take Off In America?

To hear the organizers and media partners tell it, this month’s Rugby World Cup in England is practically the most popular sporting event in the world. World Rugby – rugby’s international governing body, formerly IRB – has claimed a constantly growing (and oft-disputed) global audience of nearly four billion viewers in 2011 for the World Cup. That figure puts the competition behind only the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics as the world’s third-largest broadcast.

Stateside, though, the sport is still in growth mode (and alleged as the fastest-growing sport ). Last year, Chicago hosted a marquee international test match – one that by all accounts was considered a runaway success – setting the attendance record as the largest international rugby game on U.S. soil. The USA Eagles took on rugby’s most storied competitors – the New Zealand All Blacks – in front of a sold-out crowd at the NFL’s Soldier Field, with an audience of nearly one million viewers at home tuning in on NBC. For fans in attendance, including myself, it was a treat – even if the All Blacks ended up beating the Eagles by a final score of 74 to 6. 

Chicago, though, is one of the few places in the country suited to capitalize on an event like this. Its central location, great venues, diverse population and beautiful fall weather make it an easier sell than most. The city has proven in the past that it has the ability to interest the masses in all types of neutral site sporting events. When the Eagles of America take on the Wallabies of Australia this weekend (Saturday night on NBC Sports Network), the Midwest will likely come out and fill the seats again for what is surely going to be the only global, top-tier event that fans will have a chance to see live this calendar year. Going up against the Wisconsin and Alabama game on college football’s first Saturday, though, is likely too high a hurdle for a sport still finding its niche stateside.

Maybe a better opportunity for casual fans to get involved in the game will come next summer in Rio, where seven’s rugby will return to the fold as an Olympic sport for the first time in nearly a century. The Olympics have made a habit of turning niche sport participants into household names, and for what it’s worth Team USA is the sport’s defending champions – having won gold in both 1920 and 1924. To gear up for it, NBC will start tempting fans with a bit more rugby content than they’ve had access to in the recent past – picking up Saturday’s tune-up, as well nine games in this summer’s Rugby World Cup.

Beyond that, San Francisco is in line to host the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018 – an entirely different, but still notable, global competition.

There’s no arguing that the sport has a steep hill to climb in America, but the wheels are in motion for the marketing machine to be ready – just last month, a new business arm of USA Rugby was announced. Rugby International Marketing, as the organization is called, is being developed to represent USA Rugby’s commercial rights and, perhaps more importantly, to develop rugby domestically through the exploration of creative new revenue streams.

Will kids see these games in the coming years and decide to take up the sport? Will parents, many of whom are currently spurning pad-clad football due to concussion concerns, be convinced to allow their children to play? It’s hard to imagine rugby sustaining any top-level growth without better infrastructure in the sport’s youth, high school and collegiate levels – and with soccer maybe-finally-kind-of-really taking hold – the next few years should prove whether or not Americans have an appetite for yet another imported “sport of the future.” As a fan and former player, I’ll be pulling for rugby’s continued growth, not only on Saturday, but for years to come.

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