A study conducted in 2010 by America’s Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) found that rugby (union) is now the third fastest growing sport in the United States, following softball and ice hockey. In a previous study, which used data collected between 2007 and 2009, the SGMA had also revealed that rugby was actually the fastest growing team sport in the country.
The game, which, according to legend, was invented by William Webb Ellis in the English public school of Rugby in 1823, is now played by 750,000 Americans – a 20% increase on the number of participants playing in 2007.
The sport’s national governing body, USA Rugby, is aiming to increase rugby’s profile and “grow the game from the grassroots to elite level.” If you look at its official website, you’ll see the ‘Rugby For All – Development Pathway’ – a rugby continuum where the next generation of players are being groomed from a young age. From the age of 6, players participate in a non-contact form of the game called ‘Rookie Rugby’. In 2010, almost 360,000 children took part in this form of the game. These young player’s skills are then developed as they progress through elementary to middle school playing ‘Rookie 7s’ and then ‘Rugby 10s’ (7 and 10 players a side, respectively). At the age of 15, they are then ready to play full contact, 15-a-side rugby – rugby as we know it.
Realizing that many Americans take up the game quite late, when at college, USA Rugby has announced the launch of a new College Premier League (CPL). The CPL is viewed as “an opportunity to broaden the appeal of rugby through a true national competition featuring the country’s elite men’s rugby programs and to create an intercollegiate pathway for players with international ambitions.” The new league will consist of 31 teams from around the country who will be grouped in four geographical conferences, with the top two from each conference heading to playoffs in May.
These strategies by USA Rugby come at an exciting time for rugby on the world stage.
New Zealand, where rugby is ingrained in the culture, will stage the seventh Rugby World Cup from September 9, 2011. The tournament comprises 20 teams in 4 pools, with the USA competing in Pool C against Australia, Ireland, Italy and Russia. The Rugby World Cup has gone from strength to strength since its beginning, in 1987. Fitness levels have gone up, quality of play is on the rise and there is an increasing global television audience. For the first time ever, a US network channel – NBC – will be showing the tournament. NBC has also acquired the television rights for the next Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England in 2015.
It is not only the broadcasters that are seeing the potential of rugby in America. The annual HSBC Sevens World Series (7-a-side rugby), governed by the International Rugby Board and played in several locations across the globe, also has a stage in Las Vegas, Nevada. Recently staged over 2 days in February, the Las Vegas tournament is the largest rugby event in North America. USA Rugby also has an array of blue-chip sponsors such as Emirates Airlines, T-mobile and Bank of America.
Rugby, in its shortened 7-a-side format, will also feature in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Many people will see rugby for the first time at those games. USA Rugby will surely hope that many Americans will tune in and start to take an active interest in the game.
Interestingly, the last time rugby featured in the Olympics, in Paris in 1924, the US national team won the gold medal. Rugby has only been played four times in the Olympics and with two gold medals the USA is the most successful team.
The strategic goal of USA Rugby is to “‘Inspire America to fall in love with Rugby’.
The national team, the USA Eagles as they are known, is currently ranked 11th in the Sevens World Series. If the Eagles can successfully leverage the development pathway to be competitive in the 2016 Olympics and improve on that ranking, then maybe, just maybe, America will finally fall in love with the game.
Whether rugby in the US continues to grow remains to be seen, but the signs to date are positive. USA Rugby boasts approximately 90,000 members and has about 2,400 clubs across the country. In a recent Economist article, Nigel Melville, President of Rugby Operations at USA Rugby (and former England international and captain) stated:
“Americans like combat sports and good athletes”.
Modern rugby based on an entertaining cocktail of physicality, speed and skill certainly satisfies those requirements.
image by nzdave