Rugby in the United States has a long history dating back to the 1800s, but never a north star to aim for. Until now.
The catalyst: The United States’ formal bid for the Rugby World Cup in 2031 and Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2033. The bid is unopposed, and it has delivered on what the World Rugby Council wanted to see from a winning proposal.
While that time frame still feels a long way out, Glendale-based USA Rugby is banking on using the ensuing years to grow the game so that it’s ready to take off once the World Cup arrives. The World Rugby Council is set to decide next Thursday in Dublin if the U.S. will officially get the bid.
If the answer is yes, USA Rugby CEO Ross Young sees a path forward for his sport to grow in the U.S.
“The last thing we’re here to do is to compete with the traditional football, basketball, baseball, hockey and even soccer,” Ross told The Post Wednesday. “We spent a lot of time looking at how soccer managed to crack that. The key element always drove back to was the hosting of a World Cup.”
Jim Brown, the bid chair who led the charge for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, knows how competitive these bids can be. But World Rugby recently changed its strategy. Instead of countries bidding against each other, the new approach is to find a suitable location willing to bid, then initiate detailed discussions to clearly communicate expectations.
“The one big difference between the past bids I’ve worked on and this: step-by-step, we’ve been working closely to World Rugby,” Brown said. “… That’s not to say that they went out of their way to help us, but they certainly went out of their way to make sure that we were understanding what they needed to see and that we were able to deliver.”
President Joe Biden gave government-approved backing last month, and the plan to grow the game and leave a lasting impact both before and after the events is central to USA Rugby’s plan moving forward.
A total of 857 million tuned into the 2019 tournament held in Japan, another location that was unheralded but ultimately succeeded. Now that the third-largest sporting event in the world is seemingly headed for the U.S., cities are lining up to get a shot to host games. Already, 25 cities and 28 potential venues, including Denver, have signed letters indicating interest in hosting men’s and women’s matches, according to USA Rugby.
The cost to host the two 48-game, six-week tournaments was estimated at approximately $500 million. According to Young, World Rugby will take on the risk and operate the tournament profit-and-loss in partnership with USA Rugby. Costs and expenses for the local organizing group will also be overseen by World Rugby with USA Rugby.
“We’ve always had some sort of international events on the schedule, but I think this one just makes a lot of sense,” said Matthew Payne, executive director of the Denver Sports Commission. “It is the third-most popular sporting event in the world. Our existing rugby culture in our area and our region speaks to us being a really good candidate for hosting something like this. I think maybe most importantly is that we’ve got the infrastructure that makes sense.”
Initial projections are 3.1 million tickets would be made available for the men’s event and over 1 million for the women, but Brown said the latter could rise given the growing interest in women’s sports.
Games would be held at NFL, college and MLS venues in cities that have signed letters of intent. In Denver, Empower Field would be the venue for games.
Among the other cities in the mix: Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Birmingham (Ala.), Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Nashville, New York/New Jersey, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, the Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Even with a long runway until 2031 and 2033, there is hope rugby can take off sooner rather than later in the U.S.
“The U.S. is the biggest target market for the world of rugby, which, hopefully alters the demographics and the power that’s always sat within Europe,” Young said. “… There’s nothing like unlocking a market, and getting the U.S. involved in it is going to be key.”
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