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When the Irish Times writes, “The USA, World Rugby’s bagel with cream cheese…”. all in the local community should be aware of the recent focus on rugby in America from media entities around the globe. However, it is chancy today to sort out pragmatism based on fact or Pollyannaish thinking based on fancy concerning the nation’s rugby future.
“Facts,” Alfred P. Sloan, former CEO of General Motors, stated, “are precious things.’ The salient facts from 2018 formed a four-part outcome:
- The USA Men’s fifteen achieved a 12th place finish their highest ranking, which included first-time victories against Scotland and Samoa;
- The Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco for Women and Men achieved a ninety-percent stadium attendance figure;
- The USA Sevens Men are on top of the ten-city circuit after the first two contests; and,
- Major League Rugby (MLR) launched its inaugural season with seven teams.
Individually, or merging these singular successful events into one trend, justifies a positive attitude about rugby’s short-term future in America. But, for all the trumpeting of “The USA’s day has arrived (finally),” a more cautionary approach is warranted before the start of 2019.
- The current 12th place ranking places the Eagles in the second Tier, and measurably behind the talent and experience of the top ten nations (i.e.; New Zealand, Ireland, Wales, England, South Africa, Australia, Scotland, Fiji, France, and Argentina). Regarding the Eagles performance in the 2019 RWC in Japan, some perceive a possible semi-final result, without citing that the USA play in the “pool of death,” along with three fifteens in the top ten (England, France and Argentina). Realistically, the probabilities of advancing into the RWC Elite Eight are slim.
- The San Francisco Financial Failure. Sure, they packed the stands but most of the attendees from the USA were from California, fans who usually attended the Las Vegas Sevens (where they are on tap to return in March 2019). The event went into the hole to the supposed tune of a $4.0 million loss. Change international sevens for fifteens, and the outlook for large crowds to witness Eagles’ Test matches hovers at the 20,000 level or less. And less – significantly less - is the attendance marker when Brazil, Canada, Chile, Argentina XV, and Uruguay come to town.
- The Eagles Men’s Seven performed magnificently in Dubai and Capetown (as did the Women who won a silver medal in Glendale) but there are eight more tournaments remaining on the 2019 schedule. (Four for the Women). The goal for the USA will be to make the top four for an automatic qualifier into the 2010 Tokyo Summer Olympics. A great start to a long season ahead.
- The League will expand to nine squads with the addition of New York (RUNY) and Toronto. New England FreeJacks on tap for 2020 with a possible DC entry as well. This would enlarge MLR to 11 teams in 2020. The League states it has already demonstrated “proof of concept,” but proof of profit will determine how and if this entity continues. The average attendance last season approached the 2,500 per game average, not high enough (yet) to be in the black.
In sum, 2018 had serendipitous surprises for rugby in the USA. Whether these successes represented building blocks laying solid foundations for the future or one off, onetime events remains to be seen.