What Rugby in the United States can Learn from the FIFA World Cup

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Rugby vs. Soccer

Early estimates of the USA-Portugal World Cup match put the number of TV viewers just over 18 million, earning ESPN its highest soccer match audience in history. The New York Times also reported an additional 6 million viewers on Univision.

Only a day before the heartbreaking tie that flooded media outlets, the USA Eagles rugby team defeated Canada in a come-from-behind victory in the Pacific Nations Cup, marking the Eagles’ first win over our northern neighbor since 2009. Despite being a major victory for the Eagles, the result was buried under World Cup coverage. According to Executive Director of Rugby Texas Paul Mabry, “Following tests against Scotland, Japan and Canada, you would be hard-pressed to find results on the AP wire, in the NYT, USA Today or any major regional paper.  Even in the age of social media, the electronic media largely follow what they read in print first.”

While the attendance at Bonney Field in Sacramento for the USA-Canada match was just under 8,000, the match was sold out, which bodes well for the sport. The international friendly matches held over the past few summers at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston have drawn around 20,000 spectators per year, the U.S. leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series in Las Vegas pulled a three-day attendance total of more than 68,000 and the TV audience continues to grow for international matches and collegiate tournaments like the CRC on Universal Sports and NBC.

#USAvNZ

The international test match at Soldier Field in Chicago is expected to break U.S. rugby attendance records and could draw as many as 61,500 fans, the stadium’s capacity. Five months before the match, USA Rugby is reporting that more than 30,000 tickets have already been sold for the match.

One major factor in the difference between rugby’s popularity and soccer’s popularity could come from the difference in length of history. “Soccer is some way ahead of Rugby in terms of its development, but we are tracking well in terms of developing the youth and high school game, more college programs and a developing National team,” explained Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby, “Our paths are very similar, we offer a contact team sport that Americans love. It’s just a matter of time.”

The United States first entered the FIFA World Cup in 1930. Despite not qualifying for any World Cup tournaments between 1950 and 1990, the team and the sport gained a big boost in popularity when the United States hosted the tournament in 1994. The men’s national team reached the quarterfinals in 2002, their best finish since reaching the semifinals in their World Cup debut in 1930. The women’s team has been more successful, finishing third or better in every World Cup since 1991, and winning the tournament twice, in 1991 and 1999.

As Mabry notes, “TV commentators at the soccer World Cup are constantly referring to appearances in that event by the USA nearly 100 years ago,” –a statistic that can’t be claimed by the national rugby teams. Although the sport has been played internationally for decades, the Rugby World Cup competition was only consolidated beginning in 1987.

ESPN has reached record numbers of viewers during the World Cup by putting the matches, especially those in which the U.S. competes, on the forefront of its coverage. Sevens speedster Carlin Isles has gotten some attention from the mainstream media after signing to the Detroit Lions practice squad, but rugby overall is not yet covered at a sufficient level. Mabry believes that the sport needs major television coverage instead of the premium cable channels that reach a smaller audience.  If the soccer World Cup matches were buried online or on a subscriber-only offshoot of ESPN, the numbers would be drastically lower.

usa fansAn agreement between the International Rugby Board, Universal Sports and NBC will allow all 48 matches of the 2015 Rugby World Cup to be broadcast live or on tape delay in the U.S., which will provide greater access for fans in the country. This accessibility can only help the awareness, visibility and support of the game if it is managed wisely by the networks to maximize viewers’ access to the big matchups.

So, how does rugby reach the same level of excitement that the FIFA World Cup has in the U.S.?

According to Melville, fans play a large part in the growth of the game. “Continue to set attendance records at games, watch rugby when we get it on TV – this in turn brings dollars to invest in the game and our National Teams. A key to this will be the development of a pro league,” he said. Mabry also mentioned that large attendance at the All Blacks match in Chicago could motivate U.S. companies to jump on board with sponsorship in the future.

NBC along with other corporations and sponsors will be doing their part to promote rugby in a big way this fall as well.  “NBC will be promoting the game against the All Blacks on all local networks and during some of the major football events this fall. Our title sponsor AIG will help us promote the game through their partnerships with both USA Rugby and the New Zealand All Blacks, local partners such as MillerCoors will be helping us with promotions locally in the Midwest. We will have increased numbers of youth programs, school programs, and tournaments all raising the visibility of the event,” Melville said.

Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the U.S. and with a small boost could reach the next level of support. There are several opportunities in the near future to showcase the game to an American audience.If the Sevens squads can continue to improve and the XVs teams can reward fans with exciting wins, rugby in the U.S. will continue to move into the national spotlight. “The Women’s Rugby World Cup this year, Rugby World Cup in 2015 and the Olympics the following year will all bring increased visibility for the game in the U.S.,” Melville said.