Not to get too heavy with the first real blog post on this site but this has been on my mind for a while. Rugby in America is at a crossroads right now and a few facts need to be brought to the table.
First, it’s going to take the place of football in a few years.
A few of you may have stopped reading because football is the one true American sport and you want to make America great again and all of that nonsense but facts are facts. Now I have been on both sides of the aisle as both a player and coach and this is where my stance comes from. Too many reports are coming out now with the prevalence of CTE cases and the rising rate of injury to football players from an early age. Parent’s simply are pulling their kids from the sport because they’re afraid of what could happen.
In a sense, they’re right. Anytime you strap on a helmet and shoulder pads you are added to your overall body mass & according to my senior year physics class that I almost failed with the increase in mass, the force of a collision will also go up provided that your acceleration stays the same (F=m*a) (Yeah science!). With the increased force of collisions, there is also an increased risk of concussion and bodily harm that could happen on the field. Now I’m not saying that rugby is immune to the same types of injuries, I’m just saying that the nature of the beast is less violent in a sense that the lack of disappating hits allows for a safer experience both offensively and defensively.
There probably is more science behind why rugby is indeed one of the safer albeit more violent sports but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. When you look at a rugby team you see 15 guys on the field of all different sizes and while you may see the same on a football field, there is more of a unique difference in rugby. Is it more open for people to play than football? Maybe. I absolutely loved coaching football but when it came down to brass tacks, the starting 11 all fit roughly the same mold. With rugby anyone with any semblance of athleticism can play and excel. You have lumbering props mixed in with shifty fly halfs mixed in with giant like second rowa, it’s like the Star Wars cantina scene but it’s truly awesome.
According to a Forbes report, rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the US among high school and college kids. There are over 450,000 players registered in the United States and with the addition of PRO Rugby North America, there soon will be a boom in both participation and match attendance. When the All Blacks came to play against the Eagles at Soldier Field in 2014 it drew a crowd of 61,500. While comparing this number to football seems low, it was for a game that the Eagles had no chance in winning (spoiler: they didn’t win, the All Blacks hung 74 on the Eagles 6). Diehard fans came from around the country to get a glimpse of the haka and the technical rugby prowess that New Zealand possesses. But more importantly, they came to support their country in a time where a rugby boom was nowhere near being on the horizon. Now that we creep closer to the boom, another international friendly may see close to 80-90,000 fans in attendance depending on the stadium.
Yes there is a monetary disparity between US Rugby and the rest of the world (USA Rugby has a budget of $10 million while England has a $105 million player development budget). However, with this new boom that will happen within the next year or so, supporters will see an increase in television exposure and hopefully an increase in revenue from the new avenues that are being opened up. The advent of sevens coming to the Olympics this year will help, but it will only be a two day tournament in which the casual fan will forget about it when the next gold medal ceremony starts up.
In case my rambling stream-of-consciousness lost you there let me reiterate something for you. Rugby will be taking the place of football in a few years.
No we have never won a World Cup. No we don’t have the same skills that some other countries have. And no, our children don’t come out of the womb with a rugby ball in one hand and a Guinness in the other. But facts are facts. As of 2015 there was an increase in participation of 14 percent and there has been an even higher increase in the amount of people watching rugby. You can now turn to most any NBC channel, as well as FoxSoccer, or BeIn sports to get your rugby fix. This increase in television exposure, especially during a lull in the sports season, when there is only baseball and mediocre playoff basketball going on, has greatly helped the cause. We live in a world where people will watch something solely because the rest of twitter is watching it (like Silicon Valley, but my hate for that show is for a different blog). If rugby found a way to monopolize the season during the lulls in the sports world, the only problem would be that Nigel Melville couldn’t put all of the new found money in the same vault.
There is traditionally a dead period post Stanley Cup/NBA Finals when it’s truly the dog days of summer. Put any type of rugby tournament, playoffs, etc on during that time and ratings would skyrocket. Looking forward on the calendar for this year, we have the CRC 7s tournament in Philadelphia on June 4th and 5th, most of which will be on the NBC Sports network as well as a lesser known tournament happening Memorial Day weekend in North Carolina. This tournament, the USA Rugby College 7s National Championships, will feature 24 Division 1 Men’s teams, 16 Men’s Division 2 teams, 11 Division 1 Women’s teams, and 9 teams in Women’s Division 2. That’s 60 teams on 3 fields from May 27-May 29th. All of the 170 games will be live streamed on a website called The Rugby Channel for free. An interesting aspect of The Rugby Channel is that they offer a monthly fee to get all different types of rugby matches that a viewer may not normally get to have with their current cable package. Regardless of the fact that I think the Rugby Channel should sponsor this site, it is an avenue to reach fans and also an additional sponsorship opportunity for both USA Rugby and the IRB.
Earlier in the blog we mentioned that rugby will be taking the place of football in a few years, and 1000 words in I still believe that is true. Many of the PRO Rugby matches that take place are livestreamed on Facebook, allowing fans to watch without having to find illicit and possibly illegal ways to watch a stream of their favorite PRO team. Sometimes rugby junkies need their fix as soon as possible and this interaction with social media may be the ticket. The NFL made news recently when they gave twitter the exclusive rights to Thursday Night Football games and many fans were confused with what that meant. Is Twitter the correct avenue for fans to watch the Titans and Jaguars battle out mediocrity on a Thursday in November? Probably not. Is Facebook the correct avenue to connect fans to not just PRO rugby but any type of sport? My answer would be yes. The interesting thing that these livestreams allow are for fans to instantly react with the comment feature, which is exactly like twitter, but it allows for the browser to be open to make these comments. A lot of twitter folks lamented that it would be annoying to stop watching the game to fire off a hot tweet about how Blake Bortles has only seen snow one time, and then go back to the game. This may or may not be the wrong move for the NFL but we will see. Facebook livestreams are the way of the future and fan involvement is what is hot on the streets as the kids say. It’s lit fam (I’m still working on my lingo, see below)
One final point, and thank you if you made it this long with me. Looking at pure numbers, collegiate rugby has the most participants out of any club sport in the country. Many High School athletes see rugby as a new avenue to pursue high level scholarships and the numbers don’t lie. In the 2008-2009 season their were only 779 participants in the country playing HS rugby. As of the 2014-2015 season, there were 1,599 participants. Where did these additional 800 participants come from? I would warrant a guess that the exposure rugby has seen from 2009-2015 would allow for almost a 50% increase in participants. Rugby is safer, more violent, and teaches kids more about life than most things they will learn in school. With the prevalence of parents not allowing their son to play football, many should look toward the pitch and see what great things lie ahead for not only their kin but the future of American rugby as well.
This is where rugby will take the place of football . We will still have our college football Saturday’s and NFL Sunday’s but rugby will be a sport that fathers across the country will be on the sideline for cheering for their sons. Running opposite to football season, much like lacrosse, it could be and will be a viable spring sport for many football players. Rugby will open up doors for those who don’t get the Division 1 offers and will be alongside football as the sport everyone pauses their life to watch.
Will the USA Eagles ever raise the Webb-Ellis cup or win Gold in Sevens? I hope so, but it’s going to take a concerted effort between the fans and participants to raise the standard of American rugby to a point where we can compete with the New Zealands, Englands, and Australias of the world. If Little Johnny Smith straps on the boots instead of begging for a $150 bat that he’ll outgrow in a week, we’ll be headed in the right direction. If Athletic Directors country wide are buying more scrumcaps than helmets to outfit their Varsity and Junior Varsity rugby teams, we’ll be headed in the right direction. All it will take is a little bit more exposure and a little success and the future of American rugby will be bright.