The United States has landed another World Cup.
Before you start partying or making travel plans, a few caveats:
It’s still more than nine years away.
And, uh, it’s the Rugby World Cup.
The sport most Americans know only vaguely about – hey, isn’t it kind of similar to football, only without pads, helmets or forward passes? – will bring its biggest event to this country in 2031 (along with the women’s version in 2033).
While the Rugby World Cup ranks only behind the Summer Olympics and the World Cup in some corners of the world, this is certainly not the case in the United States
Quick, who is the reigning world champion? Where will the next Rugby World Cup be held?
Even with nine years to go in developing the game and generating interest, it’s hard to imagine how rugby could ever carve out more than the smallest niche on the American sports scene.
But some people are ready to take up the challenge.
“Listen, we know there’s a lot of competition for consumer money in America,” said Amanda Windsor White, president of Rugby ATL, Atlanta’s team in the sport’s top US professional league. “We need to work a little harder from a marketing perspective to raise awareness and give potential fans a reason to visit us.”
For those who haven’t noticed, Major League Rugby is a 13-team league that started in 2018. Although the number of teams has almost doubled in the league’s short history, it has yet to garner much interest and mostly plays in tiny stadiums in front of sparse crowds.
But World Rugby, the international governing body, is keen to expand its game beyond the traditional hotbeds of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, France and the South Pacific Islands.
White and others at MLR hope to capitalize on this push. She believes the physical nature of rugby is taken for granted by American sports enthusiasts, not to mention the social traditions like tailgating and players from both teams meeting up for a few beers after games.
“We know there are people out there who like to be trendsetters,” White said. “Once they are confronted with it, they will love it.”
The last World Cup in 2019 was held in a non-traditional country for the first time. Rising power Japan hosted a tournament that ran into some major problems, from the failure to complete Tokyo’s planned main stadium on schedule to the unprecedented cancellation of three games due to a typhoon.
But the experiment was widely regarded as a success, averaging more than 37,000 spectators, and hosts Japan reached the quarter-finals before losing to eventual world champions South Africa.
(Note: This is the answer to our earlier question. Also, the next World Cup will be held in France in 2023.)
Japan is the country that is widely regarded as the model that World Rugby wants to emulate in the United States with its national team known as the Eagles.
Japan’s victory over three-time world champions South Africa at the 2015 tournament is widely regarded as the biggest upset in rugby history.
Ahead of the 2019 World Cup, Japan received significant coaching expertise from FA and more opportunities to play friendly matches against top nations.
That formula is now being tried in the US in hopes of building the Eagles over the next nine years into a team that could potentially qualify for the Quarterfinals by 2031.
“We need to build our talent now,” White said. “We want to show on a global level that USA Rugby can compete with the best.”
The Eagles are certainly a long way from this standard at the moment.
Though USA have played in every World Cup but one since the inaugural tournament in 1987, they’ve come nowhere near getting out of group play, winning just three out of 25 games and being outscored 892-350.
Their performance in 2019 was typical: four straight defeats against England (45-7), France (33-9), Argentina (47-17) and Tonga (31-19) and a final place in Pool C.
Any attempt to make the US the next Japan will face some significant obstacles.
Most importantly, this country has many more team sports – football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer – with a significant following, making it harder for rugby to attract top athletes and make itself heard over the noise.
And unlike the FIFA World Cup, which will largely take the spotlight on its own in the summer of 2026 when the United States hosts alongside Mexico and Canada, rugby’s biggest event usually takes place in September and October.
This time frame, of course, conflicts with the busiest part of the sporting calendar in America.
The NFL and college football are in the early stages of their seasons, while Major League Baseball is finishing its regular season and heading into the World Series. Major League Soccer could be in the middle of the postseason and, oh yeah, the NBA and NHL will start their seasons in October.
Which begs the question: what if they held a Rugby World Cup and nobody in the host country knew about it?
Another potential problem: while the 2026 World Cup has pretty much a choice of prime venues, the facilities that would be used for rugby – generally NFL and MLS stadiums – are used by their main tenants in September and October.
That could force a US-based tournament to move from fall to late summer, which would fit much better into the US sports calendar. On the other hand, it would be a brutal time to hold games, with the sweltering heat undoubtedly affecting the quality of the game.
Of course, Americans love big events—even big events they know little about. 24 cities, including almost all of those currently bidding to host the 2026 World Cup, have expressed interest in participating in its rugby counterpart.
Given the country’s financial strength and organizational prowess, the 2031 Rugby World Cup is likely to be a success.
Whether it has a significant impact before – or after – the actual tournament, well, that’s far from certain.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
More AP Rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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