American rugby: Onwards and upwards
It’s been a revolutionary year for rugby in the United States, one that has seen the game leap forward into the future at a fantastic rate of knots.
While rugby has been steadily growing and developing a niche in the American sporting landscape for more than a decade, the last 18 months in particular has seen rugby experience unprecedented progress on the national scene.
NBC has become an integral partner in the promotion and growth of rugby as a viable commercial entity via its investment in the College Championship Invitational Sevens held in Columbus, Ohio, which, as of this season, will be re-located to Philadelphia and renamed the College Rugby Championship.
NBC has followed the very pleasing ratings success of the CCI Sevens with their agreement with the IRB to broadcast every World Cup pool games via their dedicated sports channel NBC Universal, and the finals live and in full on NBC proper. Furthermore, they are also investing a significant amount of time and resources into the upcoming Las Vegas IRB Sevens event where, for the first-time, rugby will be shown live into American homes as a premier sporting event.
These are incredibly exciting days for American rugby fans with the prospect of mass exposure creating a certain buzz unprecedented in rugby circles. However, perhaps even more significant, grassroots rugby in the States has seen enormous growth over the last six years, to the stage where the much lauded Collegiate Rugby structures have since been overtaken by a rapidly expanding high school scene.
Add to this a genuine push build junior participation and to greatly improve the lives of many disadvantaged American youth through rugby, the game has been increasingly finding itself in a very welcoming environment. One such movement of note would be the recently launched TRY Rugby program. This organisation endeavours to support rugby programs such as the Warthog Rugby Club in Oakland, where the coaches use rugby as a means to enhance the lives of their chargers, who all, without fail, face challenges foreign to many.
There’s an ever increasing quality of athlete emerging in American rugby via greater awareness. This seems set to continue with the establishment of the College Premier League. The whole concept grew legs early in 2010 and has snowballed into a movement that has drastically changed Collegiate Rugby in the United States. Previously Collegiate Rugby consisted as loosely strung together leagues. This movement has forcibly evolved Collegiate Rugby into defined conferences designed to replicate traditional sporting structures, something that many American rugby fans have been crying out to occur for years. As of 2012, there will be 16 geographical conferences alongside the CPL ushering in a new era for the College game. Encouragingly, ESPN has agreed to broadcast select games throughout the CPL season and the entire finals series culminated in the final to be held at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah. It all kicks off on March 5.
Finally, it has been a tumultuous time for the Rugby Super League with the withdrawal of a number of the traditional powerhouses’ of the league. Ironically, these withdrawals have seen an incredibly competitive Southern California Division One emerge with the likes of Belmont Shore facing off against current champions Las Vegas.
The RSL has recently taken the steps toward potential reinvigorating the somewhat tired championship with the inclusion of the Utah Warriors. Entrepreneur Sean Whalen leads the new ‘franchise’ with the intention of creating at least initially via the commercial side of the administration the first professional rugby union club in the USA. A somewhat odd choice considering the likes of the Glendale Raptors, who have a fantastic facility sponsored by the City of Glendale, have been lobbying for inclusion for a few seasons now.
Utah appears to be the league test case for moving toward a far greater level of professionalism and will no doubt determine the future of the likes of Glendale and potentially Kansas City and Las Vegas. Both organisations, particularly Kansas City, with its recent move into the fold of the re-branded Sporting Kansas City MLS franchise and Las Vegas with their partnership with Clermont, are said to be watching Utah’s progress and success with an eye on the future. Moving toward more professional structures may not initially create a financially equitable league for players the importance of such movement are the first valuable steps toward building something of note.
As you can see, rugby has seen nothing short of phenomenal explosion of growth and exposure in the last 12-18 months, and while the emergence of the great ‘sleeping giant’ of world rugby may still be many years off, all the right moves appear to be happening as demonstrated with the involvement of NBC and the increasing presence of Americans achieving professional status in Europe.