How Rugby Has Taken Over America

Rugby, the sport from which American football and basketball are derived, has long been eclipsed by them in the United States. However, its time finally seems to have come. By almost any metric imaginable, whether participation rate, audience size, or TV ratings, rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in America.

For decades, rugby’s popularity in the US seemed to hover somewhere between that of badminton and luge. Most Americans had no familiarity with the sport beyond its being the game Andy Capp played in the Sunday newspaper comics. It was admirable for being physical to the point of being crazy and was particularly associated with knocked-out teeth.

America wasn’t entirely wrong. There is something admirably crazy about rugby. Its combination of near-constant action and full-contact without pads places unique demands on those who play. Athletes must dig deeply into themselves for inner resources, both physical and spiritual. Football and basketball are certainly tough but compared to rugby they seem somewhat more focused on providing spectacle to passive viewers. Rugby’s pleasures, by contrast, give themselves up most to those who have played the game. It makes sense that it would take rugby some time to catch on in America. It has now done so.

During a four-year span in the middle of this decade, rugby’s participation rate increased by over 50 percent, to as high as 1.4 million; more conservative estimates pin that number at about 100,000 in organized rugby, which would still represent considerable growth. Further, this growth needs to be cast against a precipitous decline in the participation rate for American football.

Rugby has also grown as a televised sport. It wasn’t very long ago when American enthusiasts wanting to watch international superstars like Jonah Lomu compete in the Rugby World Cup had to locate their town’s British ex-patriot bar to watch matches at some unlikely hour of the morning – those matches invariably piped in via Sky Network. Those days now seem like a lifetime ago.

NBC, in particular, has steadily broadcast more rugby at both collegiate and international/professional levels throughout the past decade, enjoying steadily increasing ratings. The network jumped head-first into rugby in 2010-11, broadcasting the USA Sevens, the Collegiate Rugby Championship, and America’s first live coverage of the Rugby World Cup. In just the past couple years, the network’s affiliates have added the English Premiership and the European Six Nations Championship to their schedule.

2018 marks the inaugural season of Major League Rugby. The league is starting off small and sustainable, with nine professional teams located in collegiate rugby hotbeds like Texas and Utah.

Several factors have contributed to rugby’s swelling popularity. One is that the sport isn’t the physiological freak show that football and basketball have become. The sport doesn’t demand one to be 6’5″ to 7’3″, like the NBA. Positions aren’t set aside for 300 lb. behemoths, or for those whose foot speed is in the top 0.001% of human capability, like the NFL. It will also take some years before American rugby stars become multimillionaires, and its team owners, multibillionaires. Even at the professional level, rugby has the feel of an amateur sport, and this has great appeal for many fans. Any healthy boy can dream of being a top rugby player.

So can any healthy girl. Rugby has long been a sport woman play. Their presence isn’t a stop-the-presses marvel, like when we see a girl pitching in the Little League World Series. Of course, women have always played basketball, too, but rugby is the only team sports refuge for that certain kind of lady who likes her game tough and grimy.

Rugby has also benefited tremendously from Rugby Sevens, which provides endless open-field running and tackling at the same time football has become almost completely dominated by the forward pass. Sevens, with its 20-minute matches, is an almost perfect entree into the sport for Americans. No wonder attendance at the championships in Las Vegas has exploded to over 80,000.

In the rugby world outside Sevens, America isn’t Wales, or Italy. It certainly isn’t South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand. But we’re getting better at the game, and it’s growing fast – faster than any other.

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