The Future of American Rugby

On November 12, USA Rugby announced their intent to start an American professional rugby league in a partnership with the organization PRO Rugby. In rugby circles, the announcement was met with excitement, generating a sense of hope that the United States would finally get the professional rugby it deserves. A far greater number of Americans, however, simply didn’t care, and tuned in to watch the Bills beat the Jets 22-17 that night.

Americans love traditionally American sports: football, baseball, hockey, and basketball. These sports are at the core of the U.S. sporting world, and it will always be difficult for any other sport to break into that core. That’s not to say there hasn’t been progress — Major League Soccer (MLS) has managed to turn itself into a popular, stable and well-funded league capable of attracting significant foreign talent, albeit after spending years at the periphery of media attention. Major League Lacrosse, which played its first season in 2001, has also managed to achieve a level of stability as a semi-professional league. Neither of these leagues, however, have managed to truly rival the popularity of the “Big Four” on a regular basis across the country. That being said, they both offer a multitude of lessons that PRO Rugby needs to learn from if it  wants to be successful in the United States.

The first lesson that PRO Rugby needs to follow is to avoid trying to be too big too fast. Sports trying to establish themselves in America have repeated this msitake again and again. The North American Soccer League (NASL) of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s gives PRO Rugby the perfect example of what not to do. Bursting onto the scene in 1964, the NASL quickly expanded to 20 teams across the country, signed some of the world’s best and best-paid players (including Pele), and managed a television deal from 1975 to 1980. By 1985 the NASL was gone, having succumbed to over-expansion and financial woes. The MLS was smart to learn from the lessons of the NASL, and took almost 20 years to fully expand to a 20-team format. If PRO Rugby wishes to survive in the U.S., it also needs to follow the example of the MLS, and concentrate rugby in areas where it already has some degree of popularity, such as Boston, San Francisco, and Chicago, and remain there until the league  has the necessary public profile to expand. I have no doubt that USA Rugby could find a sufficiently wealthy backer to fund a 20-team league right now. But that league would also be gone in five years, and that would just make the entire exercise pointless.

Another lesson  from the MLS and MLL is to recognize  existing support bases, and start by catering to them. The MLL has been extremely intelligent  in this regard,  promoting themselves heavily in college and high school lacrosse events, where lacrosse already has an established status. The MLS also managed this well ­— when the league began in 1995, soccer was the fastest growing youth sport in America (it  is now the most popular). Recognizing this popularity,  the MLS strived to create a “family friendly” face of American soccer, thereby acquiring a strong following among younger fans that continues today. PRO Rugby needs to emulate this strategy, and recognize rugby’s status as America’s fastest-growing youth sport. Rugby has recently become a full varsity sport at the high school level in a number of states, most recently Massachusetts, and already has an established presence on college campuses. If PRO Rugby can recognize these fan bases and start by catering to them, they can create a league with a sufficient fan base to support expansion to general public.

Despite the successes of the MLS and MLL, soccer and lacrosse are still largely peripheral sports in America. But that’s okay — rugby fans cannot expect the sport to become America’s next pastime in the near future. What they can ask for is an intelligently managed, stable professional rugby organization that improves American rugby. If PRO Rugby can be realistically patient about its status in the American sports psyche,  it has the potential to establish itself as a respected American sports league.

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