Rugby New York’s Will Tucker receives a line-out in the second half against the Seattle Wolves during the Major League Rugby Championship at Red Bull Arena on June 25 in Harrison, NJ.Getty Images
With everyone talking about esports, the crypto crash, NFTs, fantasy sports leagues, Zoom fatigue, and all things digital, we want to bring readers back to the exciting developments that have begun to stir up traditional sports.
You remember those old-fashioned, man-to-man fights on the field, right? All decisions before the avatar wearing colored skin?
We’ve written columns on “what to watch” before (remember our misguided endorsement of American football in India?). Thankfully most of our future pieces have come true, including the rise of esports, the growing NHL and, wait for it… Formula One.
This column is a little different, though, as we’re talking about a game far down the list in North America and one that was classed as more than a niche a decade ago.
What “code” are we talking about? Glad you asked. This is rugby.
Or more specifically, rugby union, the game “played in heaven” (at least according to our friends in the British Commonwealth).
That’s right. The game was invented in rugby schools in England and has recently been perfected (in different styles) by countries such as South Africa, France, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Peter Kenneth Naduati noted on Quora that anyone can play the game because it has “positions for the short and strong, the tall and thin, the heavy set, the strong, the agile, the jumpers, the speedsters.” Additionally, “the entire team defends as well as attacks, [plus] Anyone can score.”
Like soccer (soccer), which benefited from the US hosting the 1994 (and soon) 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America, World Rugby – the international federation responsible for the sport globally – wants the US to do well in the game. So, it announced in May that the men’s World Cup would be held in the US in 2031, followed by the women’s World Cup two years later.
That strategic decision by World Rugby (the council that plans to make significant investments in the US rugby ecosystem) should give Major League Rugby, 13-team, two-nation, a much-needed boost and elevate the game beyond what many expected. Tournament headquarters in Dallas.
First, unlike its cousin – NFL football – rugby has a vibrant and growing women’s sport, that version leading to global formalization, growth and expansion. Add to that rugby sevens, a less-player (but faster, more expansive) version of the game that experienced considerable success in its early days as an Olympic sport.
Second, like its NFL cousin, North Americans love rugby a lot. This version of soccer is full of hard-hitting (but controlled/restricted) contact, passing, kicking and genetically gifted athletes, and is team-oriented, such that on some days, the game is more like a twin than a cousin.
Third, because the US is a late adopter of the game, the US is not a global giant, which means that achievement will not be easily achieved and that the US has finally earned a “victory”, not a given. In a counterintuitive way, this reality means that a new generation of North Americans may see the game as young or contemporary and traditional/old as they increasingly see baseball.
Perhaps best of all (and deliberately revisiting point #2 above) the growth of the Women’s XV (15 players on the starting roster) creates another women’s team sport and effectively provides opportunities for high schools and colleges to balance funding that has historically been placed behind men’s. . the gridiron.
Translation: Rugby represents a huge opportunity for Title IX supporters to support women in all sports, but especially football.
It is also an opportunity for the IOC/Olympics to expand beyond sevens and bring rugby to the Brisbane 2032 Summer Games. Australians love rugby and the sport has won four gold medals in Olympic competition (1900, 1908, 1920, 1924) with France, Australia (players from Australia and New Zealand) and the United States twice.
Even more interesting to contemplate is how quickly technology will advance in the next decade of rugby. The creation of an American pro league from the ground up (riding a wave of nationalistic promotion) allowed rugby to use cutting-edge technology to shape its success. Already, in places like Australia, British company Sportable Technology is experimenting with inserting chips into game balls. That data will give rugby fans countless stats to consider and bet on.
As we approach 2031 and 2033, analytical capabilities to measure performance should be mind-blowing…as we approach 6G streaming, virtual reality proximity, holographic augmentations, and artificial intelligence (all in early stages of development).
In all of the above, we say North American sports practitioners should join the rock and be in favor when rugby’s ecosystem real estate is affordable.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly is Dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Maine. Their new book, “Business the NHL Way: Lessons from the Fastest Game on Ice,” will be published by the University of Toronto in early October.