Conquering the US: Will Rugby Union Capture American Audiences?

It seems fair to state that current efforts at breaking into the ‘untapped’ US market for Rugby Union aren’t going too well, with the audience proving much harder to crack than the sports’ bosses first anticipated. But with huge potential and a developing taste for the game, will rugby union ever conquer the United States?

The English Premiership’s recent crack at the US pretty much sums up the valiant, yet unsuccessful moves made to engage American audiences. Newcastle Falcons lost 29-7 to last season’s Champions Cup winners Saracens in Philadelphia – despite the exciting fixture – failed to bring in the numbers to the Talen Energy stadium with the ground pretty much empty.

Union’s Failings

While that example disappointed those at the top of the tree in English rugby, the Prem does have a four-year deal for games in the US, so a better venue on a better date will be organised next year. A big issue was that the game on Saturday clashed with College football, which has an unbelievable following.

Further failings have come through a pro league, established in November 2015, that failed to take off. With schedule and teams in place to kick-off union in the US things fell very flat, very rapidly with all five teams – Denver, Ohio, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco – and the few pro players that investors had brought in from world rugby quickly backing away from the pro league. Investors announced in December of last year that proceedings for rugby union in the US were ceasing.

Promise Across the Pond

But while these examples have painted a pretty grim image for union in America, there is plenty of promise for the future of this code across the Atlantic. Just take a look at how rugby sevens has captivated many over the last couple of years, more so since their 2015 championship sevens in London. Bringing in big crowds across the nation and the success of the national side around the world have garnered plenty of respect and fans of the sevens code. With the introduction of sevens into the Olympics for 2016 too it gave the US plenty to shout about on the world stage. Bosses need to take a leaf out of this book to tackle their market.

While something as big as the Olympics is unlikely to come along and save union in such a way, it would seem the best bet that authorities are using is the slowly but surely option. The Premiership is being shown on live TV as of this moment, with NBCSN taking on the rights since 2016, with Champions Cup and internationals also beamed out to potential audiences much more regularly now. This, you would think, over some time will start garnering the interest of audiences, especially those who adore their American football and enjoy the physicality of the game.

This, you would think, over some time will start garnering the interest of audiences, especially those who adore their American football and enjoy the physicality of the game.

World Cup Dreams

But beyond the fact the rugby is live on US TVs is that the USA is also looking more than likely hosts of the rugby world cup in 2027 – following in the footsteps of emerging rugby hungry nation Japan as hosts – which will prove incredibly crucial to the efforts to combat support in the region over the next few years, particularly when excitement starts to build.

The chance to host such a prestigious tournament, with such a great sporting infrastructure already in place only betters things for both sides. An income for a sporting tournament and a huge gain in fans and support consequently, or at least hopefully. But with a good nine years until such a tournament, this side of the Atlantic will have plenty of time to break down and prepare their audiences for the boom of rugby union on US shores within the next decade.