More and more Americans are being converted to the sport Rugby in America.
This weekend tens of millions of eyes will be glued to television screens as the Pittsburgh Steelers meet the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, which takes place in Arlington, Texas on February 6th. American aficionados of rugby union can only dream of the Croesian sums of money that are lavished on American football, a sport that vaguely resembles rugby in wimpish armour-plating. But although their resources are far more modest they have achieved some notable successes.
One of them has been to get young Americans engaged with the game. Last year almost 360,000 children played a non-contact form of the sport at school, according to USA Rugby, the sport’s national governing body. That has helped raise rugby’s profile: a study by America’s Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) found that between 2007 and 2009 (the latest year for which data is available), it was the fastest-growing team sport in the country, outpacing rivals such as lacrosse and hockey. In 2009, says the SGMA, some 750,000 Americans played rugby, over 20% more than in 2007. “For the sport to be on our radar screen is a sign it’s got some legs,” says Mike May, an executive at the association.
To bolster the game’s appeal, USA Rugby is launching a college premier league next month that will see teams compete in four regional “conferences”, with the top two from each conference heading to playoffs in May. The league’s promoters hope it will act as a magnet for high-school players, as well as introducing rugby to more students. “This represents an enormously powerful opportunity to promote rugby,” says Bill Campbell, an enthusiastic supporter of the game who happens to be chairman of Intuit, a technology giant.
The sport in America also stands to gain from the fact that a seven-a-side version of rugby (as opposed to the standard 15-a-side contest) will be included in the 2016 and perhaps the 2020 Olympic games. The last time rugby featured in the Olympics, back in 1924, America won the gold medal. Although a repeat performance is unlikely in five years’ time in Rio de Janeiro, the prospect of representing the USA Eagles, as the national team is known, should attract more athletes to the game. Some impressive players already compete in an annual super league competition, which includes teams from some of America’s 2,400-odd rugby clubs.
The notion of Olympic rugby has certainly piqued the interest of television executives. Long the preserve of cable channels, rugby is about to appear on network TV. NBC has acquired the rights to show games from this year’s rugby World Cup and the next one in 2015. And it is planning to broadcast other matches too, including some from an international rugby sevens tournament taking place in Las Vegas later this month.
Those responsible for promoting rugby in America are confident that when more people see it, they will love it. “Americans like combat sports and good athletes,” says Nigel Melville, the head of USA Rugby. True. Yet they also have a penchant for sports that promote superstars and breed controversy, both on and off the field. With its emphasis on teamwork and fair play, rugby doesn’t quite fit that mould.