USA Rugby: Sleeping Giant or Failed Project?

As Chile gleefully celebrated their qualification for the 2023 Rugby World Cup – a true underdog story come true – their fallen opponents were left questioning where it all went wrong. And it is this question that continues to plague American rugby. How can a sports-crazy country, overflowing with exceptional athletes, be floundering in rugby? In fact, how can such a country be going backwards.

It would be remiss not to mention that USA can still qualify for the 2023 tournament, but their place in the Final Qualification Tournament almost serves as an indictment and representation of the state of American rugby. Competing against the likes of Portugal, Kenya and Hong Kong, one must ask whether USA should be “above this”. After all, the Eagles were ranked 12th in the world less than 4 years ago…


One Step Back, Two Steps Forward?

Houston: 17th June 2018. With 84 minutes on the clock, Scottish flyhalf Blair Kinghorn steps up to take a conversion on the touchline. If the ball sails between the uprights, Scotland win and avoid embarrassment. Seconds later, Kinghorn’s head is in his hands and the sound of American pride and jubilation fills the BBVA Compass Stadium. USA have beaten the 6th ranked nation in the world 30-29. Their first victory over Scotland, finally American rugby had a landmark moment that could be a catalyst for further success. And this win is fully deserved.

Fast forward to 2022, USA have lost to three teams ranked below them in the past 12 months, failing to beat a tier-one nation since that fateful day in Houston. In fact, their last fixture versus such a nation saw a 104-14 loss to New Zealand. Yes, the Eagles are not expected to beat the imperious All Blacks, but a 90-point deficit wipes out any semblance of respect and dignity. But why is this happening? Was the introduction of professional domestic rugby not meant to improve this? Has Major League Rugby not worked?

In September 2016, Dean Howes, a former executive for teams in Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League, assumed the role of Senior Strategic Advisor for Rugby Utah in an attempt to bring elite professional rugby union to the states. By early 2017, nine amateur rugby union organisations made clear their intentions to form a professional league. Adopting similar branding to Major League Soccer (MLS), Major League Rugby (MLR) was born and announced its inaugural season for 2018 – the same year of that famous USA victory over Scotland – striking a multi-year television partnership with the CBS Sports Network; there was an aura of positivity in the air for rugby stateside.

Yet, USA currently sit 19th in the global rugby rankings, their lowest ranking since 2008 and below the likes of Romania and Uruguay. Objectively, American rugby has gone backwards despite its attempt to become legitimate. Thus, one is left wondering what the solution might be. Or, if there is a clear-cut solution at all.

Firstly, the impact – or lack of impact – MLR has had on the rugby landscape in the United States must be addressed. Seven teams competed in the inaugural season, however rapid expansion saw that number rise to thirteen for the 2022 season. Whilst American sport has a history of swift and hasty expansion, it comes with its pitfalls. Teams have withdrawn from the league, league motives have been questioned and financial reports have been debated. In 2020, personnel from around MLR claimed political infighting was rampant and part owner of the Glendale Raptors, Pat Guthrie, alluded to financial struggles and incompetency.

The first issue, for Guthrie, stemmed from the supposed “partnership” with the CBS Sports Network. However, behind the buzzwords and enthusiasm the truth was slightly different. MLR had signed a “contract” with CBS. Yes, the national coverage was a necessity for the start-up league, however by paying for production and distribution costs whilst giving up major commercial sales and licensing rights, television would not be a revenue generator for Major League Rugby.

Needing to get eyes on the product, MLR went in search of rugby’s finest talents. Former England captain Chris Robshaw and teammate Ben Foden, Australian centurions Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, French behemoth Mathieu Bastareaud, and World Cup winners Ma’a Nonu and Tendai Mtawarira have all turned out for the American league. However, much like the failed North American Soccer League of the 1970s – which saw the likes of Pele, Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer arrive stateside – an influx of foreign talent can close the door to homegrown players.

An illustration of this can be found in the 2022 MLR Championship Game. Notably, the same year that USA were stunned by Chile, there were just 16 American-qualified players competing in the Championship Game – New York had seven, Seattle fielded nine. In two squads of 23, 30 players were not American-qualified. Enough for two starting line-ups, 65% of the players came from anywhere other than the United States. But is that a Major League Rugby or USA rugby issue?

General Manager of Rugby New York, Steve Lewis, has been quick to push the league’s agenda on this issue in the past, stating “MLR is a privately owned, for-profit business concern.”

“Its job is not to develop the American national team.

“There is some synergy, some crossover. That will be a happy consequence for American rugby. But MLR should not be criticized for not doing what the national governing body is charged with doing.”

However, to Pat Guthrie and the Glendale Raptors, this was a glaring, worrisome problem that intensified their concerns with MLR. The opposing argument to Steve Lewis, many feel the league should be made of predominantly American-qualified players so that the national team can grow, progress, and attempt to challenge the tier-one nations. But, for a country that is jingoistic to a fault, the US places a lot of focus on clubs and franchises, rather than national teams.

The National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer, the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) all focus on franchises and the marketable branding of said franchises. Fans are almost religiously devoted to their local teams, with international sport – excluding the Olympics – an afterthought. Thus, for a sport that is still in its infancy stateside, the MLR’s focus may be a logical strategy. Nevertheless, the national team will inevitably suffer.

This then brings us back to the present day and the Eagles fight to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Thus far, the failure and decline of the national side has been evident. But, has the introduction of Major League Rugby – to the detriment of the national side – allowed for the long-term growth of the sport in the US? Have USA taken one step backwards to take two steps forward?


Rugby Participation in the United States

In a congested and busy sporting landscape, rugby union is the fastest growing sport in the United States, with over 2,600 rugby union clubs across the country. This includes an ever-evolving, exciting and expansive college rugby scene, with over 900 collegiate teams established across the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Additionally, women’s rugby has been an officially recognised NCAA Emerging Sport since 2002, with this designation designed to grow and progress the women’s game to full NCAA championship status.

The most recent statistics, published in 2018, highlighted that the number of rugby participants has grown by over a million since 2006, whilst in 2016 USA Rugby had 125,000 registered members. But, whilst it may be the fastest-growing sport in the US, it is far from new.

Rugby first appeared stateside mid-19th century and USA have had historical success with gold medals at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. However, shortly after the latter, rugby union was axed from the Olympics and the sport suffered somewhat of a decline stateside. 1975 saw the formation of USA rugby and, despite remaining ever-present since, the Eagles have struggled to emulate that previous success – at least in the 15-a-side version of the game.

The reintroduction of rugby to the Olympics in 2016 – via the 7-a-side format – has seen an increase in both the participation and quality of USA sevens. Now global poster boys for the game, Carlin Isles – an ex-track athlete with a personal best of 10.15 seconds in the 100metres – and Perry Baker – a former NFL signee with the Philadelphia Eagles – can produce moments of brilliance with the ball in hand, inspiring future generations and additional crossover athletes to take up the sport.

Coupled with the expanded funding available, the inclusion of rugby sevens at the Olympics has also seen an influx in interest in the sport. Emphasising this, the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s has a 2-year broadcast deal with CBS Sports, whilst 2021 saw the launch of the Premier Rugby Sevens competition – an American-based professional sevens league. This growth has not however led to consistent success on the global stage, with the United States men’s and women’s sides failing to win a medal at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. Did someone say déjà vu?

Participation matters, but for a nation the size of the US, participation needs to drive success and progress. Ultimately this success requires the Eagles to consistently perform against the countries ranked higher in the global rankings. Of those countries, the USA has higher rugby participation numbers than the likes of Japan, Argentina, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Romania, Samoa and Georgia. It is easy to counterargue this by pointing to the size of the US in comparison to the likes of Wales and Scotland, but it is also this size that should allow for USA to progress; America has a larger talent pool than any other country in world rugby. Are they about to tap into that talent pool?


Rugby World Cup Hosts

Whilst USA are struggling to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, they will be hosting the tournament in 2031.

A sign that World Rugby sees the untapped commercial and sporting potential of rugby stateside, the US will host both the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup tournaments in a two-year span. A concerted and determined move to push rugby into American consciousness, the tournament could prove to be the catalyst the Eagles have been searching for. For evidence of this, look no further than Japan’s rise in recent years.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan was not only the most economically successful RWC of all-time, but also saw World Rugby provide coaching expertise, improved infrastructure and more playing opportunities against top-tier nations for Japan. This led to a hugely successful tournament for the Brave Blossoms, with the hosts winning all 4 pool games – including famous victories over Ireland and Scotland – before falling to eventual winners South Africa in the quarterfinals. Japan were the first tier-two nation to progress through the group stages since 2007.

Evidently, World Rugby’s experience of taking the tournament to Asia for the first-time will be key to ensuring the showpiece event is successful when it makes its North American debut. This success cannot just be economic though, the national team needs to be successful too.

Hosting both the men’s and women’s World Cups will cost around $500 million, according to Sports Illustrated, an interesting notion given that as recently as 2020 USA Rugby filed for bankruptcy. That said, the governmental guarantees given by President Joe Biden likely encouraged World Rugby, especially Biden’s backing for the “development of rugby in the United States” – if the White House can’t help, who can?

However, American joy and delight has coincided with worry and apprehension elsewhere. Ongoing concerns around the popularity of the game in the States, coupled with The Eagles recent record, have formed the foundation of a far larger argument. Almost serving as an illustration of the issue rugby faces to gain mainstream attention stateside, World Rugby have all but confirmed that the 2031 Rugby World Cup will move to the summer due to the NFL’s schedule. They may have sworn not to “do a Qatar” – alluding to the 2022 FIFA World Cup – but the detractors remain out in force. Their primary argument though points to favouritism and nepotism.

Notably bold given USA’s loss to Chile, the decision to bring the World Cup to the US remained all too seductive and appealing to World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont. World Rugby have long seen the US as a commercial gold mine and referring to RWC 2031 as the “golden nugget”, there is belief that ticket sales with outdo the 2.6 million tickets for the 2023 World Cup in France with 28 venues housing over 60,000 fans. But capacity does not mean sell-out; how often is a stadium full for a major rugby game in the United States?

The 2022 Major League Rugby final saw just 1,979 fans in the 25,000 capacity Red Bull Arena, filling less than 10% of the stadium. 7,389 attended the 2021 MLR final at the 78,467 capacity Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, whilst 5,000 fans sold-out Infinity Park for USA’s 29-31 loss to Chile. 39,730 fans had tickets to watch New Zealand thump the hosts at the 82,000 capacity FedEx Field. These recent attendances raise concerns, as does the fact that you need to venture back to 2014 to find the record attendance for a USA rugby match. Another drubbing at the hands of the All Blacks, 61,500 sold-out Soldier Field on that occasion.

Evidently, it is tough to gauge the interest in rugby stateside. To say it seems a ‘peaks and troughs’ situation would be an understatement, but World Rugby may well look at those New Zealand fixtures as the first etchings of the blueprint; bring the world’s best to USA, the fans will come. USA Rugby’s Chief Executive, Ross Young, understands the enormity of the task at hand but seems to echo World Rugby’s confidence.

“The tough part will be engagement” Young stated, “it is not going to be easy but taking 48 games around the country is eminently achievable.”

Young also understands the importance of making most of the next nine years prior to the World Cup. Ultimately, a new generation of fans will be watching the tournament and Young is already developing programmes to hit that target market. The introduction of programmes such Rookie Rugby, a noncontact school rugby programme, will allow rugby to impact the youth of America at a grassroots level – as of yet, an untapped and underutilised audience. World Rugby also understand this and Chief Executive, Alan Gilpin, has committed to a concerted strategic approach to develop rugby in in the US.

“We spent a lot of time working with USA Rugby on ‘What does a future growth plan look like’ and awarding Rugby World Cups – men’s and women’s – to the US for 2031 and ’33 was always going to be part of a much broader plan, a 10-year plan to grow the sport in the US and that’s incredibly multifaceted, as you can imagine.
“That’s looking at everything from the relationships the game has at youth and high-school level through to what’s the college rugby opportunity and what does that mean for the sport.”

Moreover, Gilpin also understands that – much like Pat Guthrie and the Glendale Raptors – Major League Rugby needs to provide opportunities for homegrown talent, with the World Cup host announcement providing a potential platform for this.

Giplin said “At the moment Major League Rugby… that’s not providing a pathway that is being successful for US-qualified players. “The Major League Rugby ownership group are well aware of that and there’s been some good discussions about how USA Rugby, Rugby Canada and MLR can be better aligned in those regards.

“But you know that that’s a balance between the North American professional franchise league model, it’s a business, and what we all want to see, high-performance pathways for the international teams.”

If World Rugby, USA Rugby and Major League Rugby can combine forces there is a chance for the 2031 Rugby World Cup to have a truly significant and long-lasting impact on rugby stateside. However, this impact needs to be more than financial to wake the sleeping giant that is rugby in America. If the Eagles cannot perform on the pitch, rugby cannot grow off of it. That said, with the rugby world turning their eager attention to the United States, there is a chance that the meaningful forward step USA Rugby have been searching for can be found.


No Time Like the Present

The future is exciting and complex, but the current mission is simple: win. The Final Qualification Tournament in November 2022 will not only offer USA one last shot at redemption, but it also arguably offers one last chance to escape a profound and calamitous downfall. If rugby is going to have any chance of progression and development stateside, we have reached a pivotal and defining moment.

A Rugby World Cup berth is one of the most valuable assets in world rugby – USA have taken that asset for granted and now must fight in order to appreciate it once more. Overwhelming favourites, USA are a rugby giant in comparison to the likes of Portugal, Hong Kong and Kenya. However, the bigger they are, the harder they fall; USA are already falling, but can they stop that fall and begin the very long climb back up? Time will tell, but for the Eagles, there is no time like the present.


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