As the world of soccer turns it attention to the European Championships and the upcoming World Cup qualifiers I’m reminded of the eternal lament of aficionados of the sport in this country: if the U.S. could somehow win the World Cup, or even make it to the finals, the sport would rise to unprecedented heights in America.
No question a World Cup victory would be huge. And I predict the US will win a World Cup in the next 20 years, but it will be in rugby, not soccer. When that happens rugby will eclipse some of today’s more prominent sports in the hearts, minds and wallets of American fans.
Now, to be sure, that’s not the kind of prediction that captures much attention. The vast majority of sports fans in this country have only passing interest in soccer and even less in rugby.
Rugby is practically invisible in this country. Few people understand the rules or basics of the game. It is rarely on television. The typical American sports fan, the guy who watches 30 minutes of Sportscenter a day, almost certainly can’t name one professional rugby player or the team that one the most recent World Cup. We shouldn’t expect otherwise. Most adults of today had no exposure to rugby in their youth. Many confuse it with Australian Rules Football which ESPN used to show on tape-delay back in its early days.
Historically rugby is the classic example of the younger brother eclipsing the older brother. In this case “younger brother” is football. The first rugby game in the US took place in 1874, long before modern day football was invented. It was changes to rugby pioneered in the early twentieth century that eventually spawned football, the undisputed king of American sports today. And ironically it is the challenges facing “younger brother” football today that, in my view, open the door to a potential quantum leap for rugby during the next 20 years.
Like football, rugby includes the ingredients America’s sports fans and highest performing athletes love: speed, athleticism and controlled violence. Yet, unlike football, rugby is played without helmets so players are taught not to use their heads as a weapon, nor are head-to-head collisions common, thus limiting the potential for brain injuries. Rugby is a rough sport undoubtedly, players get hurt, but the risk of serious brain injuries is less than football.
Also unlike football, rugby historically has suffered from a lack of exposure among athletes in this country. Most of the people who play rugby came to it in college, or even later. That is changing. According to a 2010 SGMA Survey, 350,000 kids between ages 6-10 are participating in after school rugby programs and it is the fastest growing team sport in the country.
Youth exposure is critical, especially among the elite athletes of the future. For a sport to thrive on the biggest stage it must attract the best athletes. Our World Cup soccer team includes some wonderful athletes, but can anyone argue credibly that the team represents the finest athletes America has to offer? Rugby’s growth among kids is encouraging because it increases the chances that elite athletes will discover it earlier.
And this is where the concussion challenges facing football become a factor. Youth participation in football is declining. The correlation with the rising the concerns about concussions is too obvious to ignore. A number of prominent retired NFL players have said they will not allow their children to play the game. Keep in mind many of the best athletes in the game today are the children of players from the past.
Imagine the possibilities if during the next 20 years 10%, or just 5%, of America’s premier young athletes choose rugby instead of football. How competitive would USA Rugby be today if athletes the caliber of Darrelle Revis, Reggie Bush, or Hakeem Nicks were on the team? What if former NFL player Oliver Luck steered his son Andrew to rugby instead of football?
There’s little question that the US produces more great athletes each year than any other nation. Currently most of them gravitate to football or basketball. For those more inclined to football, exposure to rugby could shift the balance of power during the next 20 years.
The return of rugby 7s to the Olympics in 2016 is another game changer. During that summer the sport will be exposed to the American public as never before. And between now and then it’s a sure bet that the powerful NBC Sports marketing machine will seize every opportunity to promote the sport. The additional television exposure surely will support the growth of its fan and athlete bases.
So what would happen if the U.S. won the rugby World Cup? What is a possible future for rugby in 2032? Imagine the collegiate championships are drawing 8 to 10 million viewers, major networks are bidding for the rights to televise the sport at the collegiate and international levels, 1-2 rugby players are on the list of top 25 most popular athletes, millions of kids are playing in youth leagues nationwide, rugby video game apps proliferate, American athletes earn impressive salaries for playing the sport either here or abroad, and perhaps a professional league is beginning to form.
Perhaps I’m overstating the case, predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but of all the emerging sports out there today the most compelling case exists for rugby. It might be time for all of us to learn what a “try” is.