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Monday Morning Fly Half: Rugby for the American

I am an American according to any standard by which such things are measured. Born in the suburbs of New York City, I grew up living and dying with the Mets, Giants, Knicks and Islanders (a somewhat atypical combination, I know). One day, when I was a senior in high school, I drove home in the cloud of smoke from fallen towers, listening to the static on the radio from the signals that had all been broadcasting from those towers that morning. 

Some years later, when I was still not much more than a boy, I wore my country’s uniform. No longer just a New Yorker, I lived in places from Georgia to Virginia to Washington state to Texas. And for thirteen months I wore Her uniform (emblazoned with a black and gold tab on the shoulder) on the frontier of American reach, defending Her values and pursuing Her interests in the Hindu Kush mountains.

I have lived on the East Coast, the West Coast, in the Midwest and in the South. But I did not encounter rugby until I was in my late twenties as a student at University of Chicago School of Business. Now, as middle age takes hold, I have become that creature rarely found in nature - a domestic born, passionate, American fan of rugby.

But I firmly believe that rugby union is almost perfectly suited to the American culture. And, in honor of MMFH’s move to the Earful of Dirt platform, I wanted to take a moment to make my case for what should be a profoundly American sporting success. 

Intensity of Competition

If there is one thing the American sports fan seems to love, it is sporting competition at the extreme edge of intensity. Examples are many.     

The growth of the NFL, itself a distant cousin of rugby union, is perhaps the most obvious. A league known for crunching hits and outstanding feats of agility and athleticism, the NFL has arguably emerged as the Nation’s most emblematic sports league. And, demonstrating the American hunger for intensity, even more extreme versions of NFL are appearing on the margins. The XFL, a league marketed around the avoidance of “soft” elements like fair catches, is now making its second bid to take hold. 

Even beyond American football, the demand for ever increasing intensity is easy to see. When the heavyweight division of boxing became a more technical endeavor than the free swinging days of Mike Tyson and his predecessors, the UFC emerged. Gloves reduced to all but nothing, almost any type of strike allowed, and fighting inside a cage - a combat sport with the intensity turned up. It is a good analogy for what rugby could be compared to the NFL. Pads reduced to nothing, no blocking and no forward passes, leaving battles to be fought in more confined spaces.

This trend will only continue. Not long ago I saw a Red Bull sponsored contest of people ice skating downhill in a full contact race. Rugby is simply a marketing decision away from capitalizing on this trend.

Rugby, as they say, is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen. For the American fan, the game for hooligans part may be the real initial draw. It is sport at peak intensity, where in a given span of minutes one might see two packs of huge men, arms linked, heads down, grinding through a scrum to push their opposition back a step at a time; followed by an inspired offload as a ball carrier absorbs a crunching hit and falls to the turf; followed by a desperate defensive stand. There are no rests, no timeouts, no commercials, and no hiding. Every player plays both ways and and teams must be in form for all 80 minutes.   

However it was or is portrayed overseas, a marketing campaign in America pushing rugby as an extremely intense version of football could awaken national interest that today still lies dormant. A game of full contact collisions, no pads and no commercial breaks is just what Americans want, even if they haven’t realized it yet.

Courageous Teamwork

A more enduring facet of American sports psychology is a love for the team of courageous brothers/sister who risk it all for each other in pursuit of victory. While I imagine this feature to be global to a certain degree, American sports media over the years has highlighted just how important it is to the American viewer. Americans want to be inspired by their sports heroes. 

Look at any list of beloved American sports movies. Rocky, Rudy, Miracle, Remember the Titans, A League of Their Own - Americans love tales of courage and determination leading to victory. And what sport has the capacity to be more inspirational than rugby?

For 80 minutes, ruggers take hits, find their feet and stand back in the line, shoulder-to-shoulder, relying on each other to maintain the defensive integrity of the team. A single break usually means disaster. It is speculated that the term “on the line” comes as a reference to betting money by putting chips or markers on a table betting line, but it could just as easily have come from rugby. Over and over again, teammates put their bodies on the defensive line for one another like Spartan warriors of old. Bruised, beaten, exhausted, each player stands tall for the next man or woman in line.

Rugby is a game of constant physical sacrifice, and sacrifice is the beginning of inspiration. 

Fan Experience

Americans have shown their love for sporting events that double as community events with strong fan experiences. NFL tailgates, horse race infields (i.e., Preakness) and NASCAR races all prove this inclination out.   

Rugby beats all comers on this front. Rugby combines the team allegiance of an NFL tailgate with the general celebratory acceptance of all participants that mark things like the Preakness. Among rugby fans one expects to see high spirits, liquid spirits and broad camaraderie with minimal antagonism. No matter whom you support, where you come from or who you are, you’re apt to find the rugby community accepting and encouraging.  

I fell in love with the rugby social culture before I even understood the laws of the game. In a time when every social interaction seems to involve fists shaking in anger, rugby is a warm, open, extended hand that says “Come on, you are welcome here.”

Combined with a very unique access to the players and coaches, a trait I’ve only experienced in the rugby world, rugby union should be the peak fan experience. It is a self-reinforcing loop that is just beginning in America. But with every increase in domestic popularity, an accompanying increase in the fan experience will follow. This can be a catalyst for rapid domestic growth if and when rugby gains a foothold.

The Hurdle

One hurdle looms large. Comprehension. At present, none of the above matters because Americans know nothing about it. And in our Twitter-fied world, grabbing hold of the American attention span long enough for them to understand rugby union is the major roadblock to massive popularity growth. 

The truth is, rugby is not very intuitive to the casual observer. The laws covering the finer points are fairly obscure; so much so that even for experts the officiating decisions can be confusing, inconsistent and unclear. 

With the wealth of sports on offer already, Americans simply aren’t going to invest a significant amount of time to learning rugby union so they can appreciate its benefits. Not without finding a way to grab their attention.

The Solution

Rugby in this country needs a “go-to-market” strategy that highlights the easier to understand, obviously attractive elements of the sport to gain a foothold. Targeted marketing dollars, where they exist, should be devoted to depictions of rugby as to American football what UFC is to boxing - more intense, faster paced, requiring a more well-rounded athlete. Events should be organized to emphasize the fan experience, spreading rugby social traditions.

At MLR fixtures, every game program should feature a very simple set of graphics and text explaining the basic rules of rugby. This can be tricky, because the rules are so complex. But the basic gameplay is straight forward and MLR needs to find a way to simplify it into a single page display that can be quickly absorbed, unlocking most of the game even to novice fans. 

For the complex rulings around the breakdown, scrum and maul, a more thorough effort will be required. Jumbotrons, where they exist, should try to display the penalty called on the pitch and a summary of law immediately following calls, so fans understand the whistles they see but don’t follow. For example, following a penalty at the ruck the scoreboard might flash “Hands in the Ruck - a player cannot use his hands to gather the ball once a ruck has been formed.” PA announcers may be forced to take a more active role in explaining the events on the pitch so American fans aren’t confused, frustrated and eventually tuned out.

Luckily, the product itself is already here. MLR is competitive and entertaining, with high levels of parity and a good combination of international experience with domestic talent. It has been fairly successful in obtaining television distribution capabilities. The next step is the fan acquisition effort required to bring it all home.

The Conclusion

Rugby is tailor made for the American audience. It is sport at the highest levels of intensity. It offers stories of courage and perseverance that can inspire the American public. And it features a fan experience even better than those already beloved in the States. Americans just don’t know about it yet. Getting them to focus through the noise and learn despite a huge market of alternatives and shrinking attention spans is the great challenge now facing American rugby. The next few years will prove whether or not rugby is up for it.

~Craig Griddeli