Earlier this month I spoke with Gregor Paul, the New Zealand Herald on Sunday’s voice of rugby, editor of Rugby World and author of such books on grit, guts and genius as Hard Men Fight Back (accounts of how 17 sportsmen beat extreme adversity to live their dream), The Reign of King Henry and Black Obsession (about the national team, the All Blacks).
Gregor was probing into the future of rugby, with a Southern Hemisphere bent. I had a simple message: to grow and prosper, rugby needs to focus on the USA. Commercially, I believe this is where rugby’s future is. All of the IRB’s major sponsors have business in the US. And the popularity of the game is spreading. US Rugby has picked up a lot of go-forward over the past five years. A recent survey found the USA was the fastest growing rugby nation in the world and likely to have more than 100,000 registered players by the end of 2011. The prospect of Sevens rugby making an Olympic debut in Rio in 2016 will also help the game. The US is the world’s third largest country, where there is massive love for and involvement in sport, and where there is the most significant commercial scale for media, sponsorship and merchandise.
USA Rugby would also benefit directly. The game is developing professionally and sensibly here, but is restrained in terms of its pace of growth by economic realities and consistent top level international engagement. What we need is access to a superior competition and until we can start playing in either Super Rugby (via a West Coast franchise), the Magners League (East Coast) or the Six Nations (partially funded by the IRB), it will be difficult for us to progress at the pace the game needs.
People are talking about a sixth South African Super Rugby team. But a US Super Rugby franchise would be a win-win for everyone. Gregor made the point well that the Melbourne Rebels have shown you can build a team well from a mix of local and imported talent. Why not build an LA franchise on the same platform? Let Southern Hemisphere players come play and expand their horizons while staying eligible for their national teams. We wouldn’t just grow the competition, we’d grow the game.