After last weekends game between the All Blacks and USA Eagles there has been a surge of interest in rugby from a country usually associated with Gridiron.
So successful was the game in reaching new audiences that this weekend saw the biggest number of searches for the term “All Blacks” since Google began keeping records. Whilst not everyone quite caught on (one Chicago newspaper described the All Blacks as a legendary Aussie side) there is no doubting that the American public have an appetite for rugby.
It is therefore now up to the wider rugby community to build on this momentum and ensure that one of the world’s biggest sports markets doesn’t slip through rugby’s grasp. Rugby is already the fastest growing sport in the US but lacks the kind of support that would allow it to turn professional. However, with the World Cup and Olympics just around the corner, now is the time to act.
Here are …. steps we can take to ensure the continued growth of rugby in the US and further afield;
1. A Professional League
It’s clear that national sides are going to struggle to success without having their own domestic league. Currently the US has two amateur leagues which run on the East and West coasts after the failure of the original ‘Super League’ which was created in 1996.
On Saturday the US ended up fielding 11 amateur players which means they are always going to struggle to compete with the big international sides. A professional domestic league would not only mean players have top level competition week-in week-out but that there is a better chance of retaining players in the US.
Whilst it’s currently fantastic to see the likes of Chris Wyles, Samu Manoa and Blaine Scully getting regular game time in the Premiership, it does restrict the amount of time they can spend with their US teammates. Whilst it will always be impossible to keep hold of all of your top talent, a professional league would help to ensure that at least the bulk of it is retained in the country where they can be better monitored.
2. More Regular Tier 1 Internationals
If there is to ever be a chance of rugby following the path of ‘soccer’ in the US then fans will need to see their side regularly playing the top sides in the World. Until the recent All Blacks game US fans had very little opportunity to watch their side play tier 1 sides, especially at home.
There’s no reason at least one of the Six Nations sides couldn’t play the US before embarking on their Southern Hemisphere tours in June whilst one of the Rugby Championship sides could do the same before touring Europe in November. This would ensure a minimum of two games per year on US soil to help pique fans interests as the All Blacks game did.
3. Award the US the 2023 World Cup
Let’s face it, nothing gets Americans interested quite as much as watching their team compete in a ‘world series’. You only have to look at the fanatical support their ‘soccer’ team enjoyed during last year’s World Cup to see how much Americans are willing to back their teams on the biggest stages.
With that in mind, why not award them the 2023 Rugby World Cup? The IRB have already shown a willingness to take it to emerging nations with Japan hosting in 2019, so why not make the most of the surge in public interest in the US. They already have the stadia and infrastructure to host major sporting events, and by selling out Soldier Field last weekend there is clearly enough interest in the sport.
There’s no doubt that in awarding the US the World Cup it would really focus the nation’s attention on the sport and encourage sponsors and investors into the sport. It could easily be enough to encourage the development of a professional league whilst providing enough time in which to develop a system that players can develop through in time for the main event.
4. Make the Most of the Olympics
The inclusion of rugby’s 7s in the 2016 Olympics is clearly a major leap forward for the sport, and could help propel it even further into the spotlight in the US. Their 7’s side is already a major player on the international circuit and is being backed to perform well at the Olympics with plenty of players receiving funding.
You only have to look at the overnight internet sensation that was Carlin Isles to see how quickly the interest can grow. We need to ensure that everything possible is done to encourage investment into the sport and that the team and sport as a whole is properly marketed in the US.
5. Establish a College League
One thing the US does better than any other nation in the world is college sports. Top athletes are identified in High School and offered scholarships to attend and play for the top universities in the country. They are then exposed to professional level training and have the opportunity to play in front of huge crowds.
Whilst it may be difficult at first to build the crowds, there’s no reason that colleges can’t be encouraged to begin developing their rugby offering and encourage more youngsters in on scholarships. This would ensure a surge in interest at youth levels whilst providing players with a clearly defined development route to professional rugby.
6.Stage Major Games in the US
The NFL has already shown us the way in which to break into a country with a new sport in how they have established American Football in the UK. Rugby should therefore look to replicate this model by encouraging Premiership, Top 14, Super Rugby or Pro 12 games in the US. There’s also no reason why some of the summer or autumn internationals couldn’t be played in America.
Premiership Rugby seem to have been discussing the possibility for an eternity but unfortunately it seems none of the club owners have the foresight to make the most of the opportunity that is currently presenting itself. The first major rugby club to establish itself in the US could open themselves up to a huge market and thereby increase their fan base hugely.
Surely a team such as Saracens could see the benefit in hosting one game over in the US, or even spending a few weeks during pre-season touring. Alternatively there has been talk of a ‘World Championship’ play-off between the Super Rugby and Heineken Cup champions, so why not host this in the US?
7. Make the US a Lions Stop-Off
There’s been talk for a while now of the Lions first game in 2017 being a ‘warm-up’ in Australia. Instead why not make the US a stop-off on the tour and have the Lions play a game against the Eagles? A team with the history of the Lions is sure to be well received in the US and ensure another sell-out.
We saw in 2013 how a game staged in Hong Kong worked, there’s no doubt however that the US is a much bigger market with greater potential for growth. It is these kinds of games which will make armchair fans sit up and take note in the US and hopefully encourage them into their own domestic competitions.
Do you think rugby can successfully break into the US?