Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Game They Play in . . . America

As Chairman of USA Rugby, I’ve had the delight of watching the sport take hold in American culture over the last few years. I’ve always felt confident that the game they play in heaven would find a following here in the U.S., but I never imagined that it would grow as quickly as it has.

In the 2009-2010 membership cycle, USA Rugby had 95,000 members, an increase of 35% from 2006. What’s even more encouraging, however, is that, as of 2009, over 100,000 young Americans all over the country have participated in the youth rugby club Rookie Rugby.

This bodes incredibly well for the future of the sport in the United States. As waves of young rugby enthusiasts begin to grow up, we will see an even more widespread adoption of the sport. In other words, what happened to soccer over the last 20 years could soon happen to rugby. Young people of all sizes, shapes and speeds, especially women, are discovering that rugby is about agility and aggression; flow and finesse; physicality and team spirit.

Meanwhile, USA Rugby’s State-Based Rugby Organizations have helped foster the sport in 20 states around the country. And in March of next year, we’ll debut a brand new intercollegiate tournament: the Division I Premier competition. The tournament will feature as many as 32 teams from around the country. There will be four conferences, with the top two teams of each conference facing off against one another in a playoff competition next May.

Helping rugby take root in the US, however, also requires outside sponsorship, and so far we’ve been quite fortunate. Thanks to the National Guard, more than 400 college teams have equipment and uniforms. Emirates Airline has also been an indispensable partner in growing the sport across the nation, while Canterbury of New Zealand has just agreed to provide apparel and equipment to US rugby teams for the next four years.

I’m also particularly proud of how far our homegrown talent has come in recent years. The Collegiate All-Americans continue to get more and more competitive. As do the Eagle Men’s and Women’s Sevens teams. In fact, the Eagles Men’s Sevens earned only 6 ranking points on the IRB circuit in 2008. In 2009 they earned 20, and this year they earned whopping 32. Between 2003 and 2006 they didn’t earn a single ranking point. Amazing progress!

The Women’s Eagles will be competing in the Women’s Rugby World Cup this month. The matches will be broadcast on Universal Sports. US rugby fans may soon be able to enjoy plenty more games from their home. ESPN could soon begin broadcasting college and high school rugby.

And, aside from broadcasting the Women’s Eagles matches at the Women’s World Cup, NBC/Universal will be broadcasting the Rugby World Cup in 2011, where we are finalists at the New Zealand tournament, and 2015, as well as the Churchill Cup.

And get ready for 2016 in Rio where the USA has the chance to defend its Olympic Gold Medal – last won in 1924 at the Paris games by a team made up mostly of Californians.