May 17, 2022 - Sports

Rugby's dream of American expansion

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The U.S. has been chosen to host the 2031 Men's Rugby World Cup and the 2033 Women's Rugby World Cup.

Why it matters: This is the first time that either event will be held in North or South America, so expect to see lots of rugby initiatives this decade as the U.S. prepares for such a pivotal moment.

The backdrop: Rugby has long struggled to gain a foothold in America's crowded sports landscape, but there's still a decent-sized community, with roughly 100,000 participants and 1,000 college teams nationwide.

  • Major League Rugby continues to expand, though having to compete with the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and others is a clear challenge. MLR's fourth full season is currently underway.
  • The men's national team has won just three of 26 World Cup matches, and the women's team hasn't finished in the top four this century after winning the inaugural event in 1991.
  • The low point for USA Rugby came in June 2020, when the organization filed for bankruptcy soon after the pandemic broke out.

State of play: Rugby has delivered bursts of excitement in America, like the USA-New Zealand friendlies in Chicago (2014) and Washington, D.C. (2021). But without infrastructure in place to bottle that momentum, they were fleeting moments.

  • Enter World Rugby, which has a 10-year plan to grow the game here. "We want to build a real sustainable business plan with these World Cups as the anchors," USA Rugby CEO Ross Young tells Axios.
  • World Rugby and USA Rugby will work in tandem to increase participation ahead of the World Cups. One of their first initiatives: A partnership with MLR to bring flag and touch rugby to schools.

The big picture: The beauty of a 10-year headstart is that you're not just executing a plan — you're planting seeds. Investments made today could change how an entire generation views rugby a decade from now.

"When 2031-33 comes to pass, the 10-year-old American girl ... who falls in love with the sport [should be able to] become a player, coach, referee or fan for the rest of her life."
— Former USA captain Blaine Scully, via The Guardian

Zoom out: Rugby's American ambitions are part of a broader global sports exchange currently taking place. Cricket is also trying to break into the U.S., while the NFL is bringing American football to Europe.

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