September 08, 2011

Could Rugby Take Off in the US?: The fastest growing team sport in the United States is rugby, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association. The number of players for full-contact rugby in the country grew from 750,000 to 1.13 million in 2010. Four of the U.S. matches in the Rugby World Cup, which begins Sept. 9, will be broadcast in the U.S. "There are huge opportunities for rugby in America," said Nigel Melville, the chief executive of U.S. Rugby.

posted by rcade to other at 09:56 AM - 21 comments

Probably not. It's hard to build a sport's presence when there are two competing versions. League is the code that maps closest to gridiron and has Russell Crowe as a US booster; union is the code with the prominent national federation and decentish second-tier team. NBC will probably make enough from PPV and advertising to expats and immigrants to justify its rights deal, but that's about it.

posted by etagloh at 11:17 AM on September 08

The fastest growing team sport in the United States is... being the biggest penny stock on the exchange. You're never going to be Microsoft or the NFL, because someone already is them. The sport that takes over from the football-baseball-basketball trifecta will be A) totally different from those three, B) friendly to a new technology in a way that we probably can't even imagine yet, and C) not soccer.

posted by Etrigan at 11:57 AM on September 08

Numbers never tell the whole story, but with 1.13 million players, that's already more than play the game in England, so how much more off does it need to take?

I can see why it's popular in the US, and Nigel Melville is right that there are huge opportunities for rugby in the US, but opportunities for it to become a more popular game, not to become mainstream. I love rugby, deeply, but I have a feeling that if I came to it cold now, I wouldn't find it as interesting as it was when I was watching (and playing) growing up. Professionalism has, to no small extent, ripped the heart out of it.

Gone are the pot-bellied props and skinny-as-a-rake second rows. Gone are the midget scrum-halfs and the willowy fly-halfs. The tiny wingers with elusive steps are largely a thing of the past (except for Shane Williams), but the well built flankers are still there - each team has 15 of them these days.

Now get off my lawn.

posted by JJ at 12:21 PM on September 08

Oh, and just because it's a rugby thread - the greatest try ever scored. (and some cracking commentary to go with it)

posted by JJ at 12:24 PM on September 08

the greatest try ever scored

That's pretty nice, but it could have used a marching band.

posted by bender at 12:32 PM on September 08

Rugby is too similar to gridiron. Soccer has created its own niche in the USA precisely because it is different from the big three American sports.

"Takes over" is a complete red-herring. Soccer does not need to take over from the big three in order to thrive in the USA. It is doing quite well in fact.

It took soccer 45 years to get to this point, though. Starting with the televising of the 1966 WC final in the USA. Prior to that soccer was confined to ethnic enclaves. But even 45 years ago, soccer had a much bigger presence in the USA than rugby has NOW! Soccer had several attempts, in the late 19th century and in the 1920s and in the 1960s and 1970s to make the big time. Rugby has had zero attempts.

As early as the 1920s and 1930s top level visiting European soccer teams could draw crowds of over 40,000 in the USA. Today those visiting teams regularly fill NFL stadiums of 60,000 or 70,000 or more. Top level visiting rugby teams have only just reached crowds of 10,000 or so in the last decade in the USA. There has been a huge, under-served soccer fan presence in the USA for over a century. American rugby fans are few in number and very recent in origin, and the TV coverage unfortunately reflects that. USA rugby fans will have to pay extra to watch most of the WC matches. Soccer fans do not have that problem, and we do not even have commercial interruptions anymore, either - people said that would never happen, but it did.

Rugby does not have the huge populations of American fans interested in following the top level competitions overseas that soccer has. The money to be made in rugby in the USA is much smaller than for soccer.

It would take many decades of intense and expensive effort to raise rugby to the minor, but still respectable, position soccer is in now. And I do not yet see any billionaires out there willing to do for rugby what they have done for soccer.

Finally, the modest growth in club rugby is meaningless without any growth in youth rugby. College is far too late to be learning rugby fundamentals. High school is better but there are only a handful of HS rugby programs. Stealing players from gridiron is unlikely to work either and will antagonize the already hostile sports establishment. Rugby in the USA is still too much of a drunken frat boy sport. Great fun as a social club but nowhere near professional enough to be taken seriously. The leap to true professionalism is unlikely to happen because the money making potential is not there. Rugby of either code is too similar to gridiron to be able to draw enough new fans and players in the USA to make rugby commercially viable. Similarity to gridiron is a disadvantage, not an advantage, for rugby in the USA.

American rugby fans should be grateful for the modest growth their sport has had. But do not get delusional about the future.

posted by dave2007 at 01:13 PM on September 08

@33: Total number of players is meaningless because most American rugby players have never held a rugby ball until they join a rugby club at university (ie ages 18-21). That is far too late to be learning the game. That is why, in spite of some ex-pats from rugby countries on the USA Eagles squad, we will likely lose three of our pool matches by huge margins, and I'm frankly dubious we will do all that well against Russia, either.

posted by dave2007 at 01:27 PM on September 08

Once the U of Miami football players find out that rugby has a position called the hooker, they'll beg to play on a team.

To make a serious comment, I rather enjoy watching the sport. It has a lot more non-stop action than NFL style football, and there are too many periods in soccer where nothing much is happening while teams kick the ball around looking for an opening. The speed of the game is the reason I like ice hockey so much, and the same is true about rugby. I must confess that I know very little about the fine points of the game (and it was only recently that I looked up the rules to find out what the blazes was meant by a knock-on), but that does not keep me from enjoying it.

posted by Howard_T at 02:55 PM on September 08

Oh, and just because it's a rugby thread - the greatest try ever scored. (and some cracking commentary to go with it)

Awesome, but I kept expecting a Monty Python skit to break out.

posted by wfrazerjr at 03:15 PM on September 08

Probably not.

I agree. As good a game as rugby is, until and unless interest starts to generate among high school kids and younger, it just isn't going to catch up in popularity with the "big three".

It's hard to build a sport's presence when there are two competing versions.

I don't think the differences between union and league are significant enough to be that big a barrier. After all, that difference is on par with the differences in American versus National League baseball. (Or maybe softball versus baseball; or CFL versus NFL.) Fundamentally it is the same game.

posted by billinnagoya at 03:52 AM on September 09

billinnagoya: You're wrong about the differences between league and union - the games are more dissimilar than Canadian and American Football.

However, that's all moot as league has very little international presence, and if rugby is going to take off in the States, it will be union.

posted by salmacis at 05:22 AM on September 09

I don't imagine it is permitted outside the UK, but ITV have the opening match going on live on the website at the moment:

Five minutes into the second half and the All Blacks are 29-3 up on Tonga. It's men against boys really.

posted by JJ at 05:34 AM on September 09

I wouldn't say that in the Vuna Bar in Nuku'alofa late on a Friday night, JJ.

posted by owlhouse at 06:17 AM on September 09

That's me all over though, Owly - "All weights and no speed work, pruck."

posted by JJ at 07:14 AM on September 09

You're wrong about the differences between league and union - the games are more dissimilar than Canadian and American Football. ... However, that's all moot as league has very little international presence, and if rugby is going to take off in the States, it will be union.

I will stand, conditionally, corrected, as I did not grow up watching rugby--though have been watching both NFL and CFL football since the late 1960s. More to the point, I agree, if rugby does take off in the US it will be union. Here in Japan, at least, I don't think I've ever seen league played.

Whatever. New Zealand really did romp tonight. But it is only the first round. Go USA!!! If they can't do it... Ireland!!!!!!!! (But they are in the same Group, and their first game is against each other. A Mother's dilemma!!)

posted by billinnagoya at 07:29 AM on September 09

The next "big" sport in the US seems clearly to be soccer to me. The ball has already got some serious steam behind it.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 05:57 PM on September 09

What if the NFL evolved into rugby (or something like it) due to the concerns about head injuries? Some people worry about the long-term future of football as parents are increasingly likely to not let their kids play.

posted by kirkaracha at 09:38 PM on September 09

The US team play their first game of the tournament on September 11th.

posted by rodgerd at 06:17 PM on September 10

Send me an invite. Otherwise I'll totally forget.

posted by yerfatma at 01:18 AM on September 11

Send me an invite. Otherwise I'll totally forget.

yerfatma: You really need to expand your sports horizon because, in fact, you missed a pretty good game. Through the first half the USA held Ireland to one penalty goal and a single try/conversion (10-0). In the second half Ireland improved only incrementally. The final score--22-10--was closer than it sounds. And that is from a country with no real history of rugby against one of the traditional powerhouses. Kind of like Spain/UK/Holland giving the US a scare in the World Baseball Classic.

And, ... the final score does not always tell the whole story. Last night's France romp over Japan is another good example. The final was 47-21, but until the last 5 minutes it was really anybody's game. The Japanese had France pretty scared. Japan lost by such a margin mostly because they were already losing 25-21 with 15 minutes to go and trying close that gap. The mistakes under pressure turned out to be be brutal.

posted by billinnagoya at 05:00 AM on September 11

yerfatma: You really need to expand your sports horizon

I think you might have missed a tasteless joke in there somewhere.

posted by yerfatma at 01:46 PM on September 11

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