There is no doubt that both international rugby union and rugby league federations would love their sports to grow through added interest in the United States of America.
Greater involvement and interest by the US in both union and league would indeed give greater attention to both codes, although rugby union is already the world’s second most important football code with its World Cup being one of the most viewed global sporting events.
US interest would also provide added resources to the world governing bodies of both codes.
Just recently, it was reported that World Rugby handed Rugby Australia another $14.2 million loan to address its financial struggles, at a time when Queensland Rugby stood down three players for not agreeing to same pay cuts that Australia’s other 189 professional players had accepted.
Another article, published on May 13, suggested that Rugby Australia was about to clinch “an expensive $40 millon short-term funding deal with a US investment firm” (Ares Management) to “shore up its finances over the next few years until a money-spinning tour by the British and Irish Lions in 2025”, albeit likely at an interest rate repayment of 10 per cent per year.
Given the globalisation of rugby, as also seen by greater opportunities for players in semi-professional and professional leagues around the world, it remains to be seen how Australia’s rugby codes (both union and league) can benefit from growing US interest.
From an Australian team perspective, much greater interest in either code in the US could potentially produce an American team that could defeat Australia over time in either code.
While the US is hardly a world power in either code at this stage, its potential is there.
Already, the US has the seventh most rugby union players of all nations with around 119,682, only behind Fiji 122,453, New Zealand 150,727, Australia 230,753, England 382,154, South Africa 405,438 and France 542,242.
In terms of public interest, the US is aware of the rugby codes, particularly union.
While 19,320 watched the 2018 New Zealand-England rugby league international at Denver’s NFL stadium, the US 2014 rugby union international against the All Blacks attracted 61,500 at Chicago’s famous Soldier Field.
Around 20,000 attend the Collegiate Rugby Championship held every June at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia which is broadcast on NBC, with best day crowds of between 30,000 and 35,000 during the USA Sevens tournament between 2012 and 2018.
Growing US interest in rugby union was evident in late 2019 when over 650,000 people tuned into NBC to watch South Africa’s win over England in the Rugby World Cup Final on November 2, with the six-week event attracting 10 million unique viewers on NBC and NBCSN throughout the tournament.
With talk of US television coverage being able to boost US interest in rugby union, given that television coverage of England’s Premier League matches had resulted in 35 million Americans watched Premier League soccer on NBC’s networks in the 2018-19 season (average audience of 457,000), it was noted that rugby “has the potential to appeal to those Americans who have remained immune to soccer’s charms because it’s similar in some ways to the most-watched sport in the country – American football”.
However, while greater US interest in international rugby union has led NBC to introduce the Rugby Gold Pass for rugby matches not available on NBC or NBCSN, as it had for the Premier League Gold Pass, both CBS and FOX Sports are currently televising 2021 Major League Rugby (the major US rugby union competition).
The 2019 Major Rugby League final attracted 510,000 viewers, with the Seattle Seawolves defeating the San Diego Legion.
But given that any national development is a matter for the efforts of each nation, just how can US growth or interest in union (and league) benefit Australia?
Interestingly, for many Australians, US rugby union is already seen as an opportunity.
With the fourth season of Major League Rugby underway, running from April to July in the hope of luring fans to a body-on-body contact sport during the NFL off-season, the LA Giltinis have strong Australian involvement and play their home games out of the famous 80,000-seat LA Coliseum. Tickets range from $US20 (A$25) to $US50 (A$65).
The coaching team includes coach Darren Coleman, who led Gordon to the 2020 Shute Shield premiership, former Wallabies back-rower Stephen Hoiles, and general manager and former Wallabies hooker Adam Freier.
In addition to past Wallabies stars Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau, the LA Giltinis squad includes a number of players with Super Rugby experience: Mahe Vailanu (Melbourne Rebels and 2020 Ken Catchpole medal winner in the Shute Shield), Harrison Goddard (Rebels), Mack Mason (NSW Waratahs), Dave Dennis (former Waratahs captain), and Billy Meakes (Rebels).
Such Aussie involvement in Major League Rugby follows the former Wallabies great Chris Latham being lured to coach Utah.
As of May 16, the LA Giltinis had won seven of eight games, two games clear of the next best performed Major Rugby league team in the two conferences.
With regard to US rugby league, the newly formed North American Rugby League (NARL) is projected to begin in June 2021, despite the US Association of Rugby League (USARL) league being also the national governing body and International Rugby League Member and not sanctioning the NARL at this time.
Of course, both US rugby codes are hardly likely to threaten other national leagues for some time yet, in terms of attracting players though high wages.
With the NARL having a limited salary cap of $300,000 per squad in its first year, Major League Rugby has a cap of $500,000, with salaries ranging from $10,000 to about $25,000, albeit around $40,000 for big-name imports who also benefit from cheap or free accommodation.
England’s Gallagher Premiership has wages ranging from £8000 (A$14,500) a year for academy players to £1 million (A$1.8 million), France’s Top 14 league had an average annual salary in 2017-18 of €235,000 (A$368,000), Japan’s Top League has wages that vary from £140,000-£1 million (A$254,000-A$1.8 million), and Super Rugby has the Waratahs and Australia captain Michael Hooper earning £572k (AU$1.1m).
However, playing in the US leagues, notably Major League Rugby, may help to revive the national fortunes of some of the good young Australian players.
But how else can Australia’s rugby codes benefit from interaction with the US?
With the example of USA Rugby Sevens players Carlin Isles and Perry Baker making an early transition from American football, the Australian rugby codes could also gain by recruiting players from American rugby and American football itself.
This may not only boost Australian teams, but perhaps attract greater US interest in the Australian rugby product for both codes.
US insiders note that more than 860 athletes get cut from NFL franchises every year, while thousands stop playing the game altogether after college, thus providing an opportunity for US rugby to hold combine-type tryouts in the hope that such athletes can adjust to the demands of rugby.
While Australian rugby league clubs already provide opportunities for US rugby league players seeking to play here, perhaps both the NRL and Rugby Australia could also host their own combine-type tryouts or send officials to the US to scout and help players with potential.
Given the greater technical complexity of union, it may well be that former American footballers adapt far more easily adjust to the league game.
Collingwood has already proven that using American athletes can be beneficial, as evident by the former US College basketballer Mason Cox becoming a key player in recent years.
Of course, the transition from any sport to another is much harder than I may suggest, even for the various contact football codes.
In 2019, the multiple US representative rugby league player Joseph Eichner (100 kilograms) made his debut for Northern Pride, the North Queensland Cowboys feeder club, after moving to Australia in 2017 to pursue his dream.
However, having returned to the US due to the coronavirus-interrupted season, Eichner joined NARL side New York in 2021.
In the end, however, with US efforts to promote the rugby codes now evident, the Australian rugby codes can embrace this reality and make every effort to also benefit any way they can, just as former and present Rugby AU players are already doing.