Watch Out America! - Men with odd shaped balls are coming.
Updated: Jan 17
The 2020 domestic rugby season has kicked off here in America, and there is genuine belief that this is the year which will see the world's greatest game establish a foothold in the world's richest sports market.
Personally, this is a bit of an obsession for me and one I hope culminates in World Rugby choosing USA as the host nation for World Cup 2027, the kind of new audience exposure and excitement both the US domestic game and the international tournament would collectively benefit from.
There has been past success which has briefly lead to a 'false dawn' - the US victory in Olympic Sevens way back in 1920 and 1924 when France were the only other nation to field a team, lead to the creation of a formal governing body, and a resurgence in the 60's and 70's saw the Americans start to compete in international tests with mixed results.
Today, with the recently created Major League Rugby (MLR) featuring 12 sides from beyond just the traditional North East and West Coast strongholds, fans and novices are able to see professional rugby played to a competitive level on home shores.
As with so much of U.S. sports - broadcast exposure is everything. The MLR has penned a deal with CBS to show a weekly live game during the season and the playoffs between the highest finishing teams in the two conferences and the Championship game. In addition, ESPN, Fox Sports 2 and Canadian station TSN have a selection of games and each team is able to strike local market cable and streaming deals.
So what are rugby fans being fed? The broadcast coverage is competent but, because it is early days, lacks the infrastructure and technology investment we have come to expect as the standard. No multiple angles for big screen reviews, overhead cams or embedded cams in goal posts and corner flags yet. The stadia - mainly college arenas capable of holding tens of thousands - are far from full and fixed point panning shots from gantries in the stands tend to show great swathes of empty seats which doesn't help with the spectacle. Though there are touchline cameras deployed for lineouts, they are principally there to feed the distracting US obsession of talking to coaches and reserve players mid-game, something which works in the 'stop-start' timeout heavy nature of US sports but interrupts the flow of our game.
The commentary is mainly provided by Antipodeans with a good knowledge of the game, adding a little color, but it can be a bit 'bloke-y banter' at times. What the commentary teams are doing well is helping to interpret the complex laws and nuances of the game to a new audience. And, rather than get bogged down in the technicalities of the front row - hardly understood by anyone with a shirt number higher than '3' - their focus is rightly on brilliance, demonstrating good possession, territorial gains, recycling of the ball, breaking the line - as well as the fundamentals of the infringement rules.
And as for the rugby itself - frankly, it is one of those rare experiences where the product is better than the packaging: the quality is good, it favors the open running game, refs let it flow and with quick-passing there are enough turnovers and mistakes to be unpredictable.
U.S. Rugby has a couple of good feeder systems - first, a strong collegiate structure and second, transfers from American Football - an especially rich source for flying wingers, crash-ball centres and ball carrying backrows. Add to that the appearance of World Cup winning players doing a 'Beckham' and bringing a bit of glamor to the US domestic game. 2011 and 2015 World Cup winner Ma'a Nonu is on the books in San Diego and it is rumoured Chris Robshaw is close to joining Mathieu Bastareaud at Rugby United New York - which would be both a big name coup for MLR as well as probably the first time Robshaw has been considered as adding 'glamor' to anything.
So how does all this pull together to support a World Cup 2027 bid for USA? Well, a growing and competitive domestic game with a curious if 'not quite committed yet' fan base demonstrates America as an emerging 'rugby nation'. There is no doubt the stadia and transport and hospitality infrastructure is in place and travelling fans will find it an easy and enjoyable experience. The success of hosting Soccer's World Cup in 1994 - especially fan moments like the Ireland vs Italy game at NY Giants Stadium - is largely credited as playing a huge role in bringing what was seen as an outsiders sport firmly into the U.S. mainstream.
And while the tier one teams continue to dominate, the U.S. international team is on the back of an eight game winning run dating back to June 2018 - including victories over Canada, Uruguay, Argentina and Scotland. With World Rugby placing more Tier One v Tier Two games on the roster this year and next, we hopefully will get to see the Eagles play teams with a good US-based following like Ireland, Wales and South Africa soon.
And while Bill Beaumont at World Rugby has rightly declared the games dont simply go to the highest bidder - FIFA take note - there is no doubt the U.S. has the financial clout, sponsorship and TV rights opportunities to make this a financial success too.
So everyone with an interest in seeing rugby flourish in U.S. needs to check the game schedules or the TV listings and start following a team either live or on the small screen. MLR can help by working with their new data partner, Sportsdigita, to package stats into meaningful and educational insights - a task assisted by U.S. sports viewer already being accustomed to stats heavy coverage.
Making the game easy to access is critical.
A highlights show would be a smart move, where the key moments from the week's games could be packaged and analysed and shared via social media to improve viewer knowledge Moreover, with try, tackle or 'showboat' of the week we can create the heroes and villains which constitute a major part of U.S. sports reporting - think of the fawning over the deities that are Quarterbacks and the pantomime outrage for toothless ice hockey 'enforcers'.
And while having secured TV coverage is good, it has a mass audience, it is not the only future for broadcasting. MLR needs to be exploring its OTT D2C distribution opportunities, in house production and social media platforms and streaming services to make the game accessible to everyone with a 'phone in their pocket not just those of a certain demographic who are willing to sit down at 5pm on a Sunday to watch a game.
The future is remarkably bright. Rugby is here and it can only grow. If the powers that be at the clubs, the MLR and USA Rugby can agree the collective benefits of a successful domestic league for the fortunes of the national team and the growth of the game more widely - we can realistically look forward to welcoming the showcase of the greatest game to these shores in 7 years time.
Martin Liptrot is the founder of 98Republic a business development, marketing and advertising agency. After a far from glowing rugby playing career on the windswept and sodden fields of north west England he is now based on Florida's sun-kissed beaches but maintains a passion for growing the sport locally and the untapped opportunities at a national level. Contact Martin@98republicpr.com