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Photo Credit - Sam Jones, Courtesy "Vanity Fair"

On October 9, 2009, I interviewed the Media Director of the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) in Rome in the Stadio Olimpico, the stadium built by Mussolini in 1932 that housed the 1960 Olympics.  On that fall day, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted rugby into the 2016 Rio summer games, the organization’s deliberations and subsequent vote streamed live into European rugby federations.

Rugby would return as an Olympic sport after a 92-year absence but in the seven-a-side version. There were many reasons for the appeal to the IOC of the sevens game; (1) Men’s and women’s teams, (2) Wide, possible selection of nations, including smaller countries such as Fiji, Samoa, Kenya, and Tonga, and (3) Exciting, easy to understand on field action to maximize worldwide broadcast interest.

Immediately, Italian sports journalists telephoned the FIR, offering congratulations. The media director stated, “This new Olympic invitation will change rugby globally in ways no one can imagine.” And, he was right, especially in the United States, where even past Rugby World Cups barely produced a small, obscurely placed squib in the nation’s sports pages.

Enter NBC

The National Broadcasting System (NBC), which owned the television rights to the Rio Olympics, investigated who, if anyone in the Unites States, were rugby sevens experts? The answer proved to be American International Lifestyles (AIL), owner of the USA Sevens tournament, then transitioning after three-years from San Diego to Las Vegas in 2010.

NBC would be interested in a new event that could offer familiar college brands, playing sevens rugby. AIL created the College Rugby Championship (CRC), presenting it in June 2010 at the Columbus Crew soccer stadium in Ohio. Sixteen teams played that first year including, Army, Navy, Dartmouth, and Arizona, the exciting finals won by Utah over California in overtime. The stands were virtually empty but the ratings were encouraging. The sevens rugby, new as a sports event to many of the colleges, looked spotty and amateurish except for the finalists and a few other teams.

CRC Moves to Philadelphia, NBC Broadcasts the USA Sevens

AIL (to become United World Sports) changed the 2011 CRC venue to Philadelphia’s PPL Park (MLS Soccer Stadium in suburban Chester, PA). NBC increased its rugby coverage to fourteen hours. Over the next six-years, attendance and national fan interest increased significantly as broadcasters reminded the television audience that sevens would be in the 2016 Olympics. And, importantly, always citing the possibility that the USA might qualify teams for men and women.

NBC, pleased by its CRC ratings, began to televise the Las Vegas Sevens in 2011. During the next six years, the event increased in attendance, becoming the premier sevens tournament in the United States. With the rise in viewership, NBC’s events' announcers placed more emphasis on the possibility of Olympic berths for the now familiar named US Eagles.

Olympic Qualifiers

Finally, in 2015, USA men’s and women’s sevens sides won their North American qualifying tournaments to gain entry into the twelve-team 2016 Rio Olympic tournament. A recent retrospective on those past CRC competitors who played for the Men’s Eagles listed Brett Thompson, Will Holder, Danny Barrett, Nate Ebner, Ben Leatigaga, Patrick Blair, Thretton Palamo, Peter Tiberio, Madison Hughes, and Blaine Scully. The Women’s Eagles included Meya Bizer from Penn State.

From the moment of qualification, NBC added more Olympic rugby features to its 2016 USA Sevens and CRC broadcast, reminding viewers of the upcoming August contests. The media introduced the public to sevens speedsters Kristen Thomas, Colin Isles, and Perry Baker.

Vanity Fair - The Ultimate Sevens Rugby Acceptance Accolade?

This month the zeitgeist magazine Vanity Fair, known for its provocative covers, celebrity portraits and interviews, and articles about international scandal and gossip, featured an array of Olympic athletes headed for Rio. Carlin Isles and Maddy Hughes represent the USA Men’s Eagles.

This August will be almost seven-years from the historical 2009 IOC vote. In early June, the CRC invited 24-men’s teams with increased number of women’s sides as well. The Las Vegas Sevens topped a one-day total of 30,000 fans in March of this year. Colleges play sevens in the spring with more than 200 summer scheduled tournaments.  Lastly, everyone has remarked on the improved quality of sevens college, club, and national teams.

The Italian Media Director’s assertion proved true that rugby’s reentry into the Olympics as sevens would alter the world’s appreciation of the sport. Nowhere is that statement more pronounced than in the Unites States where seven-a-side rugby has found a hospitable welcome as a dynamic sport, thrilling to watch, and offering a set of recognizable American stars.

The Rio Olympics, coming to NBC this August. A must see.