Sold-out Chicago match marks rugby's soaring popularity
Think David versus Goliath in short shorts with choreographed trash talking.
Sunday rugby match between New Zealand's All Blacks, the world's top squad, and the USA Eagles, who lost eight of 10 games last year, has sold out Chicago's 61,500-seat Soldier Field -- the largest-ever audience for an international rugby contest on American soil, signaling the sport's growing U.S. popularity.
"People do really like watching rugby in America," said Nigel Melville, chief executive officer of USA Rugby. "They just don't see enough of it."
The competition on the home field of the National Football League's Chicago Bears follows record U.S. television viewership of the soccer World Cup, and comes as domestic-abuse cases and head-injury litigation hammer the reputation of American football. Rugby, which will join the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, has been the fastest-growing U.S. team sport in the last five years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.
NBC, which is airing tomorrow's test match with coverage starting at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, has seen rugby ratings climb. Average viewership for two USA Rugby telecasts on NBC this year rose 14 percent compared with 2013, according to the network.
NBC started producing matches in 2009, when Olympics officials announced that it would be part of the Summer Games, said Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network.
"We're bullish on the sport," Miller said in an interview. Rugby "is huge around the world, but is late coming to this country. And we're happy to be part of its growth."
In 1981, U.S. rugby officials were so desperate for international matches that they hosted a tour by the South African team when many countries spurned the Springboks to protest apartheid. At a match in Albany, New York, folk singer Pete Seeger led 1,000 demonstrators condemning the visit.
Tomorrow's game will mark how far rugby has come in the U.S., and may be a distraction for Chicagoans who haven't seen the Bears win a home game since December. The International Rugby Board ranks the All Blacks as the world's top team.
They preface each match with the Haka, a Maori war dance meant to challenge opponents and get the All Blacks fired up. The players stand with knees bent in a wide stance, slapping limbs in unison and yelling tribal chants.
Rugby will be added to the Olympics program for the 2016 games in Rio, featuring seven players on each side, a shorter, higher-scoring form than the 15-a-side game being played at Soldier Field. Rugby was last in the Olympics in 1924 as a 15- man game. The U.S. won that tournament.
The increased programming of overseas athletic contests is boosting exposure in the U.S., said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.
"We have this telecommunications revolution going on," Zimbalist said. "It makes the international sports much more immediate than they used to be."
The match at Soldier Field is sponsored by American International Group Inc., which aligned itself with the All Blacks two years ago as the insurer sought to revive its brand after its 2008 bailout by the U.S. government. Rugby's popularity among executives, risk managers and others makes it an attractive demographic for AIG, said Daniel Glantz, global head of sponsorship for the New York-based company.
Rugby rosters are growing. In the five years through 2013, average annual U.S. participation increased 14 percent, according to a May report by the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a trade group whose members include Nike Inc. and the NFL. It was the biggest growth rate among team sports for players ages 6 and up, according to a survey in January and February.
The base of about 1.2 million participants, however, is much smaller than other team sports, said Keith Storey, the Jupiter, Florida-based vice president of Sports Marketing Surveys USA, which does research for the association. Even after tackle football's average annual participation fell 4.6 percent in that period, for instance, it still had five times more players than rugby, the report shows.
Rugby is catching up partly because the sport, which uses no hard helmets or other protective equipment, is more economical and safer than football, said Tom Feury, who started youth programs in New Jersey in 1999 with about 25 children. Today, the program has about 2,000.
Fewer concussions occur in rugby, said Robert Cantu, a researcher of brain injuries at the Boston University School of Medicine.
"Without pads and without helmets, players are taught to tackle with their arms and shoulders, and keep their head out of the tackle," Cantu said.
Feury, 54, who started playing as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, is coming to tomorrow's match with about 40 people from Morris Rugby, his club in New Jersey about 45 miles west of Manhattan. He's also planning to see a Second City Inc. comedy show and take an architectural boat tour.
"To have it on our own soil and to have a sell-out stadium, that's a big deal," said Feury, who has been to six Rugby World Cup matches overseas. "It's got to be good for the economy with all the hotel rooms, dinners out, Second City shows. It's good for rugby, but it's probably great for Chicago."
The opportunity to see the All Blacks, who last played in the U.S. in 1980, is bringing fans from around the world, said Kara Bachman, executive director of the Chicago Sports Commission. Based on chartered flights and group bookings through international tour operators, Bachman said almost half of the attendees may come from outside the U.S.
Attendance will be more than triple the previous record for an international match in the U.S., according to USA Rugby's Melville. The crowd at a June 2013 match in Houston between the Eagles and Ireland reached 20,181, he said.
U.S. players expressed excitement about how the exposure will advance the sport in America, regardless of who wins the match.
"It's going to be very difficult," Hayden Smith, who plays the lock position, said in an interview before eating dinner in Chicago's West Loop neighborhood. "And really it's just going to be a great day for USA Rugby."
To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago at ecampbell14bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelmanbloomberg.net Flynn McRoberts, Michael Sillup