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Forbes Magazine on Pro Rugby

From Forbes Magazine: http://blogs.forbes.com/sportsmoney/2011/02/25/why-pro-rugby-could-win-in-the-united-states/

Why Pro Rugby Could Win In The United States
Feb. 25 2011 – 11:25 am | 1,974 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments
Posted by Jon Pritchett

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Although likely to have been played as far back as the 5th Century, the sport of rugby is generally considered to have originated in 1823 at the Rugby School in England.

It has been played in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France by generations, spanning nearly two centuries. As a result of English imperialism, the sport was spread to the southern hemisphere and those countries (Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa) have come to dominate in international competitions.

World wide viewership of Rugby World Cup (the sport’s premiere event) is surpassed only by FIFA World Cup and the Olympics (not including motor sports). In 2007, 4.2 billion people watched the Rugby World Cup in over 200 countries.

Other than the 1924 Olympics when the US won the gold medal, America has been fairly well dominated in international competition – especially in the 15-man rugby game. However, there is something in the world of rugby that is starting to catch on in the US and it’s called “Sevens.” Started as a training game for the backs and wings (similar to what American football teams do in practice), Sevens is a fast-paced, wide-open version of rugby that features seven-man sides. It’s a “don’t blink or you’ll miss something” brand of the traditional game that has evolved into a well-attended series of international events being broadcast all over the world. And, the USA is beginning to compete at a high level against the world’s best. Two weeks ago in Las Vegas, the HBSC Sevens World Series made its lone tour stop in the US. If you didn’t make it to Sam Boyd Stadium, perhaps you tuned in to NBC’s Universal Sports and witnessed the spectacle for yourself? The network dedicated an unprecedented amount of air time to the sport on Saturday and Sunday.

In addition to their coverage of the IRB Sevens Tour, NBC Universal also has also started to broadcast the USA Rugby Sevens Collegiate Tourney, which takes place this summer in Philadelphia. 30 of the top college teams in the country will battle it out for a national championship – without the imprimatur of the NCAA. Believe it or not, rugby is one of the fastest growing sports on campus these days. That goes for both the women’s and men’s game. Over 1000 colleges have teams, sanctioned by the international governing body of rugby, the IRB, and by USA Rugby. However, rugby is no longer a college sport played only by casual athletes looking for a little sports competition and a lot of beer. More and more of the players are coming into college having played the game in high school in officially sanctioned events with certified coaches or at the youth level. USA Rugby’s largest membership base consists of high schools. And according to the America’s Sporting Goods Association (ASGA), rugby is the fastest growing team sports in the country – growing at a rate greater than lacrosse and hockey.

Does this mean the US is soon going to challenge the world in a sport long dominated by Europeans and their southern hemisphere competitors? No it does not. However, there does appear to be a movement under foot that could gain some dramatic momentum. The 2016 Olympic Games will include the seven-man game as an official Olympic sport. While the US is not very likely to win the gold, they are likely to pick up a lot of fans…and more than a few new participants. Unlike the sport of soccer, which has grown at a much slower rate than most had predicted in the US, the sport of rugby has some attributes that are more likely to match our taste. USA Rugby, in a recent promotional video, refers to its sport as having, “the ferocity of hockey, the speed and toughness of football, the high jumping of basketball, the precision sliding of baseball and the inventiveness and artistry of soccer.” That may sound like a bit of hyperbole to you, but that sums it up pretty well. The sevens game is attractive to Americans with short attention spans and long-held views that scoring a lot is good.

In a nation with 300 million people, strong capital resources, a plethora of training facilities and no shortage of outstanding athletes, the potential does exist for the US to become competitive in the international world of rugby. The marshaling of those resources will only occur if the US consumer base begins to show significant interest in the game on television. It’s probably a fairly long way off, but the thought of the United States of American becoming a force in rugby is enough to frighten rugby supporters from London to Johannesburg to Sydney. Rugby may never challenge American football in popularity here, but it might just serve as a remedy for those football fans who suffer from post-season traumatic withdrawal disorder. Just think, we could watch the NFL, UFL and NCAA games from September to February and then watch rugby matches from March to August. Oh, the possibilities.