How Much Longer Will The Giant Sleep?
In the modern professional era of rugby, there have been a handful of teams that have ruled with the New Zealand All Blacks being the king that sits upon the rugby throne. They don’t have it easy at the top with Australia and South Africa wanting a piece of their legacy annually and the Northern Hemisphere teams always looking to topple the mighty Kiwis.
It looks as though the All Blacks will rule the fields for the foreseeable future. For a nation that has no more than 4.5 million people, they certainly punch way above their weight in this sport and have done so for the better part of a century. Since the All Blacks have played as a rugby team, they boast a winning record of 76%. That’s a team that has won 76 percent of their matches since 1893. That is a record that can certainly earn them the best team in sport. Ever.
For a country that small to have a record that daunting, you would expect countries with larger populations to at least challenge them. South Africa, with it’s diverse population and demographics, have 650,000 or so registered players and field a formidable team. The third ranked team, Ireland have 153,000 or so. New Zealand, being ranked first, have 146,000 registered rugby players, below their closest rivals on the rankings board.
The giant that I speak of though isn’t a team that comes from the usual strongholds of rugby, but from the country that can produce super athletes. They already produce some of the best Olympic athletes on the planet and have claimed a number of championships over the years but have never fielded a formidable rugby team.
The United States of America has 458,000 registered rugby players and this number has been reported to grow. When the All Blacks toured to Chicago to play the Eagles, Soldier Field, was sold out long before kick off. Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears, has a capacity of 63,500 and almost half of the tickets were sold within two days. Just take a moment to think about this. A game that isn’t that popular compared to NFL, baseball or even football/soccer. A game that the majority of Americans have never played or even really seen. A game that once featured on an episode of ‘Friends’. This game of rugby sold out a massive stadium and fans from all over the country flocked to Chicago to watch a once in a lifetime match.
With the 61,500 spectators that were at the stadium, there were a reported 927,000 viewers on NBC (the carrier of the game) which out-does the MLS viewership by 25%. Even though rugby is still a minor sport in America, the signs are there that America is awakening from it’s rugby slumber and is capable of producing a world beating team.
There aren’t any professional teams in America at the moment, but there are plans to change that in the near future. While these plans are being pushed through, the members of the USA Eagles ply their trade in the professional leagues of Europe and Japan. The popularity of Rugby Sevens has also helped the growth of the sport with audience numbers swelling at the Las Vegas tournament, from 15,800 in 2004 to 68,600 fans in 2014 over a three day period. The compact format of the game is easier to watch and follow which is perfect for a new and upcoming market.
The USA Sevens team has produced some world class talent, most notably Carlin Isles, who is considered one of the fastest rugby players on the planet. This type of marketing and using ‘posterboys’ is the way to penetrate the American market. The orthodox 15 man game is a little difficult to explain to a person who is sitting down for the first time to watch the game. A Sevens game is easier to explain and better to watch, so America needs to promote the shortened version.
Rugby will see more exposure as the Rio Olympics 2016 looms on the horizon. It is the first Olympic games that rugby will be included since 1924. Instead of the 15 man game, rugby will present the Sevens version, which would only need two days to declare a winner.
The USA have a great chance on capitalizing on the rising popularity of the game, with greater participation at grassroots level and begin to build a solid base of players and expand the talent pool. America has a population of 316 million people that manages to field 32 NFL teams with each team 46 players on the sideline. By doing some simple math, 1,472 players that are allowed to dress for the game every weekend. That’s a lot of talent. Keep in mind that this number doesn’t include the players who don’t make it or players on a practice team or fringe players.
If the American population can field 1,472 professional and trained athletes for a single sport, rugby surely has a place. Rugby won’t have the financial clout of the NFL so it’ll be a David and Goliath battle, but it is recorded that David did slay Goliath in the end. Rugby will have to be patient and smart with the little investment that they have at the moment, but the early signs of growth are positive.
The more investment in the game from the administrators and governing bodies, the better the chance of rugby gaining in popularity. Even though the current rulers of the game are New Zealand, it’ll be only a matter of time before America produces a world beating team, but it’ll take time to rise from 16th into the top tiers. Once the giant wakes, they’ll be hard to stop.