TRY HARDS

Will America Ever Fall in Love With Rugby?

It's a fast, messy, and dramatic contact sport, but this English transplant is played at a pace alien to American sports-lovers. Can they be converted?

01.12.15 10:45 AM ET

There’s about to be a new kid in the world of professional American sports. And he’s likely going to be laughed straight out of class.

Rugby, the game of big tackles, no helmets, and huge athletes in short shorts, has been dubbed the “fastest growing sport in America.” Investors are betting that this ultimate tough guy contact sport will be able to fight its way to the top of major leagues.

The National Rugby Football League has big plans for the game in the US. From today until Thursday, the NRFL will host NFL, NBA, and NHL roster cuts in an NFL-style combine at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Shawn Zobel, director of player recruitment for the NRFL, says his personal goal is to make rugby the fifth major professional sport.

“We’ve laid the foundation this past year with the right kind of people and I have all the confidence in the world that it will happen,” he says.

Like many things English, Rugby is a game with a lot of history. It’s embedded in the culture of the UK--the modern game originated there in the 19th century—and the DNA of its fans and remains a much more raw, primitive game than football.

As rugby enthusiasts like Zobel and the NRFL make this latest push to bring the sport to this side of the pond, they have some factors in their favor. As Zobel notes, Americans would love rugby’s “physical style of play and camaraderie.” Rugby athletes are required to be multi-talented and versatile, and have an ability to think fast during a game.

Tactical knowledge, developing strategies together and working as a team to execute them is something football players often cite as the most difficult part of transitioning to rugby. Unlike in football, there is no room for a hero, and a single athlete can’t necessarily steal the show.

While rugby is the not-so-distant ancestor of football, play is entirely different. The idea in rugby and football are basically the same: get the ball to the end of the field and over the line. In rugby, you score a “try” instead of a touchdown, tries are worth five points and conversion kicks through goal posts are worth two.

But rugby is a marathon, not a sprint and time-outs don’t exist. The British get frustrated with the stop-start nature of football, while the slow pace and lack of big plays in rugby would drive Americans crazy. We are used to football, with 50-yard passes and where every play results in something exciting. This is possibly testament to our short attention spans and desire for everything in front of us to be fast and flashy.

Tackling in rugby is a prime example of how the game is far less ostentatious than football. No one wears pads or a helmet, so hits must be below the shoulders.

Players aren’t dramatically launching themselves like missiles into their opponent. They dive for the legs and hold on, or simply tap an ankle, which can trip up an opponent running at full-speed. And tackles are more common, which contributes to the game’s slower pace.

As a result, a play doesn’t get as far, so an American viewer could watch for several minutes without feeling like the ball has gone anywhere.

It’s incomprehensible to Americans accustomed to heroes and big plays as to why anyone would stick with this confusing, slow, and less-than-glamorous game for an entire 80 minutes.

Despite past failed attempts by various organizations, The National Rugby Football League is intent on bringing the sport to America. It’s currently assembling a team for this coming summer, and recruiting for a 2016 season with a planned 6-12 franchise teams across the country.

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Michael Clements, the founder of RugbyLaw, the organization behind the NFRL, thinks that these athletes have simply never considered rugby as an option, and some will emerge as stars on the pitch.

The fact is, though, that the best players from these disciplines have already taken major league contracts. Rugby in the US is getting the older players, and those who no longer cut it at the elite level. The beginnings of the league will be made up of repurposed cross-over athletes with no rugby experience.

Shawn Zobel defends the inexperience of their talent pool. “I don’t think a player has to be born with a rugby ball in their hands to be able to pick up the sport and play it,” he says.

America has a reputation of liking to be the best at something, and rugby is not our sport. As we witnessed last November when the New Zealand All Blacks deigned to play a match against USA Rugby, American attempts at the game can be cringe-inducing.

Rugby also has the problem of being a British export. Along with soccer and the mind-meltingly complex game of cricket, the British Empire successfully colonized the world of international sports. But unfortunately for rugby fans, Americans just don’t like the British imposing their rules on us.

We grew up with Monday Night Football, home runs, and slam-dunks. A “try” and a “scrum” are thoroughly alien to our lexicon, and what’s with that weird looking ball, anyway?

Jon Hegel, a former college defensive tackle, and die-hard contact sports fan, points out that, “Rugby is still pretty foreign to the US, and Americans will have to be educated on how to follow the game.”

According to Shawn Zobel, the league is working to counter this culture problem by developing youth teams, and that Americans will “fall in love with the sport," given its similarities to football. But will that be enough to lure in new fans and make the game worth investment?

The issue for sponsors boils down to basic economics. The amount of advertising that keeps the NFL-machine running isn’t possible in a game with no time-outs and a ten minute halftime. It’s simply not built for commercial breaks.

 

This may seem like a bonus to viewers, but it won’t make rugby sustainable in a market dictated by the NFL model of $3.9 billion in ad sales per year.

While everyone agrees that watching the All Blacks perform the Haka is the most exciting and simultaneously frightening thing that’s ever happened in athletics, it won’t be enough to convert the American sports fan. American sports culture would have to undergo a dramatic shift and open up to international competition, and that might be a bridge too far.