NFL Exploring Possibility of US based Pro Rugby League

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Updated: August 15, 2013
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This is probably not going to come as news to some people.  Forbes were reporting on this back in May that the NFL is apparently making moves to bring a full-on professional rugby seriesto the US.

First off, it needs to be stated, Rugby in North America is not a new concept. There are well established teams in Seattle, Boston, New York, and San Francisco playing in their own premier league. USA and Canada have their own professional rugby bodies who oversee their respective national teams, their 7’s contingents, and the US also oversees the college presence of rugby.

So why is the NFL now looking to throw its support behind the establishment of a bigger, more encompassing league?

As the Forbes article points out, it makes good financial sense for the biggest sport in the US to align itself with one of the biggest sports in the world that is not widely-spread in North America. While the major league codes in North America have a massive following, said following is largely domestic. That said, the NFL is making headway into the UK, creating a more global interest outside the borders. The Patriots have played at Wembley stadium, and there are  two NFL games scheduled for this season.

The NFL has pointed out they have the facilities already established in major markets to bring rugby stateside, and are already looking to bring the Aviva Premiership side London Irish to Gillette stadium this year. The question is though, would such a move actually work?

To investigate further what the growth of professional rugby could mean to the US-based teams, I put the word out to the twittershpere, and was hit with replies from a number of clubs in the states who all have unique views of how rugby could, or should, develop.

Chet Hileman, director of the St Louis based  Sunday Morning Football club for example states,  “The biggest area of growth is with the youth. In the past 4-5 years, probably 7-8 youth rugby teams have started through high schools around our city. We will start to have kids who just played football, now playing both and starting when they’re 14 years old in high school. At that point, once it’s in the high schools you’ll start to see it even earlier.”

Hileman’s club has been carving out a very well respected reputation since the clubs inception in 1974. As well as participating in their club division of rugby, Hileman mentioned, “Sunday Morning Rugby Club just ran a camp for inner city youth from ages 9-14. They loved the game, it was our 3rd year running the camp and several of the kids had gone on to play in high school and hopefully will play in college,” suggesting that the way of the future for Rugby in the US is to capture the potential players young, and encourage their development from there. This seems to dovetail well with the NFL’s idea that at collegiate level there are potentially thousands of elite athletes who just don’t know how good they are.

Ahmad Bahrami, who has worked at College level and now youth level in Fresno, CA. continues this thought pattern, commenting on Twitter; “Rugby’s growth has to be grass roots…Get kids to play early and they’ll play for life.”

Bahrani however, does not believe that the growth should not come from the NFL, and that rugby the states could and should still attract players, growing from within. He supports this by pointing out, “In 5 years we’ve gone from 1 club to 6 youth clubs and a college club,” indicating growth is already happening within the US markets. While Bahrani does not disagree with the idea of a professional league, he believes rugby should be played “because it’s rugby, not because [people could play professionally]”.

Hileman believes that a professional league and NFL involvement is exciting, and believes the NFL may look at the fact that rugby fans can also make good football fans and vice versa.  Hileman also points to parental health concerns that are becoming more evident in American Football as a potential driver for greater rugby participation. “As the concussion evidence is raised in American football, many American parents are looking for alternatives to the game. Rugby is evidenced to have less head injuries and I believe personally that a smaller individual can succeed in the sport making it both more appealing to parents and also provided an averaged sized man an opportunity to excel whereas in American Football if you don’t have ridiculous size, you’ll be an anomaly if you play in college.”

Both agree that rugby is developing exponentially at the moment, with coverage on NBC and other networks of the 7-a-side version of the game. While there is still limited coverage of the 15-a-side game, rugby is still showing solid growth. The 7’s will also feature in the 2016 Rio Olympics. As interest continues to grow in the game, it does seem to be a great time for a professional league to be developed. The NFL does have the pedigree to make something like this work, having previously been involved with the North American Soccer League, the precursor to Major League Soccer.

The concept of a professional league, and growth of US rugby does I believe need further investigation. I’d like to thank Chet Hileman and Ahmad Bahrami for their comments, I’d welcome comments from any other US-based teams as well (or from those in Canada), please contact me via Twitter or by leaving a note in the comment section below. Check out the website for the Sunday Morning Rugby Club (http://www.sundaymorningrugby.com/) as well, to see more about what these guys do for rugby and their local community.

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5 Comments

  1. Verne Greene

    August 15, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Rugby is growing exponentially in Southern California. There are more than 30 high school teams with 20 in San Diego. While the NFL’s money is highly appreciated, it’s cast-off players are not. There are in Southern California 18-year-olds who started playing tackle rugby at 10 years old. They have the rugby skills to make pro rugby fun to watch. Football players, no matter how talented, do not have the skills. Just imaging a linebacker having grown up in football hardly ever touching the ball and never passing it. Now imagine a rugby team made up of players like that. It would be too ugly to watch.

  2. Michael Bevington

    August 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Chet is right on. Engaging at a young age is the key to growth and boosting talent in the USA. Nice article!

  3. Craig

    August 15, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    The Jacksonville Axemen Rugby League team gets several thousand fans to each home game and provides an atmosphere that is very fan friendly. Concessions, Bathrooms, Cheerleaders, Merchandise, Kid activities.

  4. Paul Michniak

    August 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Spring Rugby starting two weeks after the SuperBowl would be brilliant. Snow, rain, sleet – doesn’t matter. The fans would eat it up big time! signed Retired Yutes’ Coach

  5. Ryan

    August 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    You might want to be a little careful with using the word ‘league’ in the context of Rugby, as it easily creates confusion between Rugby Union and Rugby League, the latter being a separate sport that has a following in selective parts of the UK and Australia. Most of the time when people are talking about rugby, it’s the former; that being the game of scrums, rucks, and mauls.

    I’m an amatuer men’s rugby player here in the US, and I am very happy and excited about the possibility of the sport getting a larger following. I’m not 100% convinced the NFL is the right organization to be behind it though. Rugby works differently not just in terms of gameplay but in organization, financing, and marketing, and I’m not sure if the NFL is going to be able to grasp that element. Still I hope the plan works, it’d be great if there were wider coverage of rugby on TV here in the US, and the interest it would generate would be great.

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