Culturally, most countries on earth are married to no more than a handful of sports. Certain sports have true cultural significance, others do not, and it’s incredibly rare that an outsider sport rises to take the place of any established traditions. Take the UK as an example: soccer overwhelmingly dominates, with every city in the country boasting incongruously large stadiums that are packed to the rafters every time a ball is kicked. Cricket sits behind soccer as the nation’s second sport, while sports like rugby and cycling are also taken seriously. Even so, none hold the cultural significance of Europe’s favourite game, something that doesn’t look set to change in the near future.
The situation in the US is slightly different, though. Football is America’s favourite sport in terms of viewing figures, but basketball and baseball enjoy overwhelmingly greater participation. Ice hockey is significant in the northern states, while soccer is growing exponentially with a view to rivalling the big three in the relatively near future. When you consider the sheer size of the US population, coupled with the diversity of culture across the country, it’s unsurprising that there is plenty of room for alternative sports to grow alongside the primary pursuits.
One sport that’s been quietly growing for years now is rugby. Football, in its infancy, was played under ‘rugby-like’ rules before morphing into the sport we recognise today, but its origin is due a resurgence as many move away from the helmets and pads. Against football, rugby is more suitable for a wider range of participants, and is arguably safer given the strict rules about blows to the head or the neck. As the dangers of football are repeatedly brought into the public eye, rugby is seeing a greater number of converts. Google even has a team. The sport lacks a superstar role model like Tom Brady, and the once-promising PRO Rugby league folded after just one season, but it's on the rise.
‘We need to invest today to be able to get the rewards 10, 15 years from now,’ USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne told CNN. ’In the US it's still a start-up sport relative to some of the more mature sports. That gives us a lot of opportunity because our numbers are growing, whereas a lot of the other sports that would be considered mature sports in the United States are actually having membership decrease, so that's exciting.’ Events like the Olympics have given rugby the exposure it needs to get a foothold in the US, and now it’s just a matter of raising the profile and making the sport more appealing to those perhaps not convinced by the country’s traditional sports.
In many ways, US rugby is in a similar position to that of US soccer a decade ago, and the rapid growth of MLS will buoy US rugby’s investors and players alike. In terms of whose responsibility it is to pull rugby from the fringes of American sports into the mainstream, you shouldn’t underestimate the role the tech companies will have to play. Take Omnigon, for example, a digital services firm looking to bring rugby to the masses through a dedicated Rugby Channel. Currently available on desktop and mobile apps, the channel will be making its way onto advanced platforms in June, according to The Drum. It’s important that companies like Omnigon are dedicated to broadcasting rugby from around the world, raising awareness of the sport in a country fixated on its own full-contact sport. Taking viewers away from the mainstream sports will be no easy feat, but Omnigon are optimistic of their chances.
‘If you look at rugby in the US as you may have looked at soccer in the US 20 years ago, it follows a similar growth pattern as a result of grassroots efforts,’ Nick Arcuri, director of sports products for Omnigon told The Drum. ‘Really, the youth and college is the major saturation of rugby players in the US. Getting a professional league is maybe the one to five-year plan, so it’s at least known throughout the US. Just like when MLS launched, it really wasn’t known to anyone other than soccer fans.’ This is surely a priority for those pushing US rugby. Without a nationwide league - the PRO folded for reasons other than a lack of interest - it will be difficult for US rugby to attract the key brands it needs to compete financially with other more established sports.
Even so, ESPN is reportedly interested in the sport, with Super Rugby being broadcasted this year. It is hoped that strong performances from the US national side in a major tournament could drive this interest forward. A large sponsorship deal - akin to that of MLS with Adidas in 2004 - and exposure through a major broadcaster would go a long way to raising the profile of a sport currently played by some 400,000 Americans. Also, the Las Vegas Sevens tournament boasted a crowd of over 80,000 in just three days - the numbers are there, and US rugby is now waiting for a major broadcaster or sponsor to take it to that next level.