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The growth of rugby in the USA

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The growth of rugby in the USA

Rugby has been labelled as the fastest growing sport in the USA for a number of years and the likelihood of the game growing further is looking promising.

American Football has dominated in the States which is one of the main reasons why, until recently, rugby has struggled to attract a significant player and fan base.

Competing with America's biggest sport is still off the cards for the foreseeable future, but the rapid growth and engagement of rugby across the country has started to excite many Americans.

The potential interest for rugby was seen when the All Blacks visited Chicago back in 2014. An astounding 61,500 exhilarated Americans gathered at Soldier Field to watch their country pitch themselves against the world's best. Despite watching their team suffer a 74-6 defeat, US team member Chris Wyles reacted:

"It was just an awesome experience, and it shows you what kind of support rugby can have in the States... it was incredible. I always say, if you expose American sports fan to rugby, they'll fall in love with it."

Rapid growth 

Moreover, there are now more than 115,000 registered players with USA Rugby, with 32,000 of them coming from people who are in college. It was in 2010 when the figures were at 81,000, where the USA had higher participation rates than established rugby playing countries Wales and Scotland.

Of course, America's population is far greater than both Wales and Scotland combined which doesn't give this figure much penetration, but it's still impressive nonetheless considering the popularity of the sport in both of these countries.

According to figures, the estimated rate of participation growth in rugby between 2004 and 2011 was 350%. A massive rise in just seven years which has kept increasing ever since.

Women's rugby - Growth article.jpg

What's more, there are now 800 college teams spanning across most States. The countries Varsity Cup, which entertains 14 of the most recognised collegiate programmes in the country, is broadcasted nationally. 

The annual Las Vegas Sevens is another tournament that allows doors to be opened for the expansion of the game in the country, welcoming 16 teams from across the globe to American soil each year. 

Starting them young 

At the end of 2016, there were 35,000 high school athletes playing rugby, 10 times more people than there was a decade ago. This level of growth is a great indicator of how far the sport has come in the States.

Dan Payne, CEO of USA Rugby, wants to target five to 13-year-olds at the grassroots level, getting them into the game at a young age instead of them entering the game in their late teens. This will give them more time to progress and learn how to play rugby properly. The more this is done, the standard of quality that will rise to the national and international level will be higher.

Figures from USA Rugby show there are more than 50,000 youth registered players now in the United States, with many more now falling under the five to 13 year old categories.

World rugby legend, Waisale Serevi, is helping young athletes to take up the sport in their early days. The Fijian has had an illustrious career, especially in the sevens form of the game.

Serevi has set up his own coaching company which aims to teach school children the basics of rugby, giving back what he learnt throughout his career. This will benfit many kids and hopefully this can be an influential catalist to help both boys and girls to know the game of rugby before reaching college.

Major sporting events   

There's no doubt that Rio 2016's rugby sevens introduction has further enriched America's growing apetite for rugby. 

CNN reported that Payne had said their website traffic had spiked to 35 million for the duration of the men and women's tournament, up from a usual daily visitor count of 200-300 thousand.

Payne told CNN on how important events such as the Olympics can be to help grow rugby.

"Every time we have a large event it allows us to increase the standard within that major market, and then we incrementally build on that year over year, so it's going to be a phenomenal experience."

His comments are also related to the USA's hosting of the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament in San Fransico.

"I think we're right on the cusp of really being able to commercialise and monetize the sport. The participation numbers are continuing to grow, the awareness is growing," Payne adds.

The governing body is clearly thrilled about the future of both forms of rugby in America at the participation level, especially with the USA now hosting next years Sevens World Cup. However, questions have been asked about whether the growth can be sustained at the national and international professional levels.

The national and international stage 

The USA men's international 15-a-side squad qualified for the 2019 World Cup this year with a 74-42 aggregate victory over rivals Canada, the first time in their history where they have qualified ahead of their neighbours. They're now set to play the likes of England, France and Argentina in the pool stages.

This provides a huge opportunity for the country to really see how close they are to becoming an integrated figure in world rugby.

Sustaining the growth of the game at the top level has been an issue in the last few months due to the future of the competition looking to be in doubt after disputes about contracts and payments have come to light. This could have a hugely detrimental effect on their international teams, without a fully functional national league there is no way the international set up can be improved efficiently.

The potential for the USA to do well at the 2019 World Cup is good if the competition can carry on if not, preparations will be seriously damaged and the chances of being able to get a decent result will look unlikely.

Talks about Europe's Pro12 league expanding to the US have been in progress, with Houston and Toronto the most likely venues, with interest also coming from Boston and New York.

ST_vs_LOU growth of rugby.jpg

In addition, the English Aviva Premiership still have plans to host a game in the USA in September. Saracens and London Irish managed to draw an impressive 14,811 attendance when they played each other last season at the Red Bull Arena.

Teams like Saracens have American partners, so it makes sense for them to try and grow their US image. Being able to play in America more often (like the NFL does in England), will no doubt enhance the growth of the game.

Also this year, the USA hosted Ireland at the Red Bull Arena. They were defeated 19-55 but the positive note was the game attracting 22,370 spectators at the 25,189 capacity stadium. This again indicates that there is a genuine interest and passion for rugby in America, something the Governing Body has noticed and is starting to act upon.

If more English/European teams can start to play some of their games in the US, showcase the skills and passion people have for the game on this side of the pond, then there's no reason why the game can't keep continuing to grow.

The women's game

According to recent figures, 25% of the people playing rugby in America are female and with the women's national team now firmly inside the world's top 10 rankings, the scope is there for more women to be inspired to get involved with the game. 

This year's Women's World Cup, held in Ireland, has come at a great time for women's rugby in America and will be a great opportunity for the women's national team to showcase themselves against the best teams in the world. Making it far in the competition will be huge for the women's game in the States. 

The future

There's no denying the future of US rugby is looking very positive, especially when you consider how participation and viewing figures for the NFL are struggling.

This can create a gap for rugby to jump into, to try and sustain some solid growth over the next few years in the lead up to the World Cup and beyond.

Having a strong USA rugby team will be beneficial for the game in general. Despite being the second most popular sport on the planet, rugby needs more competitive teams to be able to grow and having a huge global power like America being able to build a strong team from scratch in a limited about of time will no doubt inspire other countries to do the same.

USA Rugby's Strategy 2020 is a comprehensive plan that has been devised to try and promote growth at all levels of rugby. If this works, we could be seeing the next fleet of American rugby stars soon and the national team going from strength to strength. 










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