It is the third most popular sport in the world according to some numbers…its World Cup Final brings the largest audience and the most sponsorship of any event short of the Super Bowl…it has amended its rules, added fan and sponsor friendly events and carved out a faster version of the sport so popular that it will be part of the Olympic Games in 2016 and beyond…it has had a growing grassroots and collegiate following in North America…and by many accounts it was the first large scale male team sport to accept an elite athlete as being gay. So can rugby make a foothold in areas where it is not yet popular, namely the United States as a professional sport or at least an elite one-off event? Maybe.
The business changes made to the sport to speed it up, simplify it, and even remove some of the violence of “American football without pads” has certainly helped mainstream the game, and the participation of NBC in helping push the Olympic-style game of Rugby 7?s, while also televising the World Cup, has certainly been a huge pop for a sport that for years has been a great club sport on college and high school campuses. The Olympic acceptance for the game was also a huge boost in both awareness and potential funding for a team sport that was an afterthought in this country for many years. The ability for elite clubs to also add additional sponsor dollars by traveling and staging large scale events in and around the United States has also been a big plus. The sport has embraced digital and social media as a key way to grow the personalities of the game around the world, and the business opportunities for sponsorship and brand engagement amongst a young and active audience increased greatly with Olympic acceptance. But do we need another professional sport in the crowded U.S. landscape? While it is true that lacrosse has been clamoring for years to get its professional side growing to a level of the college game in interest, it has not happened. Popular Olympic sports like beach volleyball have withered on the professional side as well. So why rugby?
First, the Olympic involvement gives the game a leg up on niche sports that miss that cache, and that funding and that four year opportunity to capture the casual fan. The grassroots support, and now the added television exposure of a college and national team competition give the sport a consistent presence that some Olympic sports don’t get, so rugby now has the best of both worlds. Now any effort on a professional level in the States would have to be gradual. MLS’ took over years to build from the grassroots up to make itself a solid professional entity, and a rush to pro rugby would be foolhardy. Cost control could work. So also could a match with football fans clamoring for a spring sport that is definitely football-like, and in Rugby 7?s and the more streamlined and TV friendly version of the traditional game is more action and easier to follow. While the lack of equipment may lead to more injury from time to time, the unencumbered look of athletes will also have a plus in growing personalities from all walks of life. It is also a game that most of the world plays and understands, so the new immigrant to the country can assimilate pretty easily. Can you grow quality talent to fill the league, and then build that talent level up to world-class quality? Time will tell, but that’s where elite training, and taking from other sports, can come in.
It certainly won’t happen overnight, but suddenly the interest in rugby in the States seems to be taking hold and growing, from a grassroots, television and sponsor perspective. Making the jump to a new level of engagement is a big one, but one which today seems more plausible than ever before, and one certainly worth watching as we head into another Olympic cycle.