Are you aware that the Rugby World Cup is happening right now? The tournament started on September 18 and will conclude on Halloween Day in London with a final match between New Zealand and Australia.
World Rugby, the international governing body of the sport, has been putting on the Rugby World Cup since 1987, but it still hasn’t quite caught on with Americans. There’s a good chance that even pro sports fans in the United States—who keep up with football, baseball, basketball, and hockey—have no idea of the cup’s existence. (In case you’re curious, the U.S. lost all four of its matches to Samoa, Scotland, South Africa and Japan.) Though the sport has grown in popularity in the U.S. at the youth and college level, it hasn’t translated to more eyeballs for the sport at a professional level on television. So what’s holding rugby back?
“The fact is, it’s not an American sport. It’s just not our sport,” offers Bob Dorfman, sports marketing executive with Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “I think also the sport is so close to our football, it’s not different enough to be fascinating here. I think you’re probably going to see American football catch on faster in Australia and New Zealand than rugby catch on in the U.S. We’re exporting our sports more than other countries’ sports are getting popular here.”
Indeed, many of the theories as to why American sports fans don’t follow rugby are about the sport itself. It’s too similar to American football (or, in a contradiction, perhaps too different and complicated). It has a set of rules that most Americans don’t understand and aren’t interested in understanding. It’s confusing at times in its action (passes must be thrown backward, for example, never forward). Ed Zitron, a British public relations executive in San Francisco, says he has spent years watching both sports, and, “Rugby just isn’t as fun to watch. Even if it’s more violent, it isn’t as physical. It doesn’t have that… bam! There isn’t the same drama.”
From a business sense, there’s a lack of merchandising opportunity for rugby in the U.S. There aren’t big individual stars that can become international icons like LeBron James or Kobe Bryant in the NBA, or soccer heroes Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. You don’t see Americans wearing rugby shirts (unless it’s as a fashion statement) the way you see them sporting soccer jerseys. “It’s interesting with international soccer,” Dorfman says. “It’s taken a long time, but soccer has really become accepted here, partly because it is so different from any American sport.”
If Americans know anything about rugby at all, they likely have heard vaguely about the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national men’s rugby team, famous for the haka, a Maori ancestral war dance that honors the past and has bled into other sports, like some college football pre-game rituals. More recently, foreign rugby players have gained attention in the U.S. by joining the NFL, such as Kenyan rugby player Daniel Adongo, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013 (but is now only on the practice squad) or Australian Jarryd Hayne, currently playing for the San Francisco 49ers. This, it appears, is the way for a top rugby star to gain fame in the U.S.—not by playing rugby.
It is a different story for Americans who played rugby in college. Jason Lang, an account manager at Oracle (ORCL), is one such person. He played rugby at the University of Massachusetts for three years and then played with Boston-area rugby clubs like Mystic River and then the South Shore Anchors. He says rugby’s biggest hurdle to gaining popularity in the U.S. is the difficulty of finding it on television. “I would say out of my friends that didn’t play rugby, maybe half of them realize that right now the Rugby World Cup is going on, but that’s all—they know it exists, but they won’t watch a game,” he says. “It is challenging to find it on TV. It’s hard because the premiere games happen anywhere but this country. It’s kind of like soccer in that way—the great matches are going to be anywhere else but here. So you have the time zone difficulty. Thankfully for me and my club, one of the guys on my team owns a bar, the Tinker’s Son [in Norwell, Mass.], and we gather there to watch, even if it means we need to get to the bar at nine in the morning.”
Heading out to a bar that early is a hard sell to a casual rugby fan. It’s a hard sell even for a serious rugby fan, like Liz McKeon, who played rugby at Dartmouth College. “I’d have to go to a bar to find it, for the most part,” she says, “and it seems like in the last two years, every time I’ve tried to go watch any rugby, there’s been a cover charge. So I’m glad if there’s more of a demand, but I’m not going to pay $10 to go sit and watch in a bar. And if it’s live, well, I’m definitely not going to go at 6 a.m.”
NBC has tried to remedy the television problem by offering rugby on NBC Sports Network (and on its streaming product, NBC Sports Live Extra). In 2010 the network (CMCSA) started showing the Collegiate Rugby Championship, and in 2011 it added the Sevens World Series and the Rugby World Cup. Since 2011, NBC’s five Sevens Rugby telecasts have averaged 1 million viewers—that isn’t nothing, but compare that to the 17.6 million average for a Sunday NFL game last season. NBC has slowly increased its coverage year after year, with (very) modest success. Its most-watched rugby telecast ever was on January 26, 2014, with an average 1.23 million viewers. “We’ve made a commitment to rugby,” Gary Quinn, VP of programming for NBC Sports Group, tells Fortune. “Rugby is a fast-moving and action-packed sport with a passionate audience that’s trying to engage new fans.” Last year, a November 1 match between USA and New Zealand sold out all 61,500 seats at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Still, the international sport isn’t engaging new fans quite in the same way it is engaging new players.
According to USA Rugby, 28 American colleges and universities now offer rugby scholarships. For the most part they are not big-name Division I schools, but there are some exceptions on the list, like Texas A&M and University of Connecticut. One of the first colleges to ever offer full-rides for rugby was Life Chiropractic College West in Hayward, California, which started doing so only three years ago. Rugby has been a stronghold at chiropractic schools, and athletic director Adriaan Ferris says the sport is at last picking up steam at the college level. But it isn’t yet leading Americans to follow international rugby. “It’s a hard thing because it’s like, you know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know. So if you’re not already looking for this sport, it’s hard to understand it and want to watch it. But with rugby being in the Olympics in 2016 in Rio, that will really help with awareness.”
Many rugby players and fans in the U.S. are hoping the same thing—that the debut of Olympic rugby at Rio will change things in the U.S. But if the times of matches are still inconvenient, it may be tough. Everyone has theories about what could make the sport bigger in the States. If you ask Ferris, World Rugby “should educate the general American public on what the rules are” leading up to the Rio Games. Scott Donaldson, a sportswriter with Fairfax Media in New Zealand who used to run the blog Super Rugby Tips, says the USA team, “needs to be part of higher level competitions that would see them play better teams, more often.” Diana Parkhurst, who teaches physical health and coaches rugby at a high school in Needham, Mass., says, “they simply gotta get it on the screen more.” But she is also encouraged by developments at the high school level: Massachusetts recently voted to officially sanction rugby as an MIAA varsity sport.
Still, even for American youth athletes, rugby isn’t yet an automatic hit, for the same reasons it isn’t a must-watch for viewers. “When kids are faced with a choice in school, they’re going to play baseball or basketball or football,” says Jason Lang. “Because that’s what they know. People stick to sports they know.”