October 9, 2009, was a good day for Jonathan First. As President of the USA Sevens, that portion of the International Rugby Board's (IRB) World Series that is annually held in America, Mr. First knew full well the opportunity he had just been handed.
On that day the International Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly to introduce Rugby Sevens into the summer games, beginning with the 2016 event in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. Mr. First and his team wasted no time in acting.
Following the lukewarm reception his event had received in the Southern California area, the USA Sevens was relocated to Las Vegas, Nevada and based out of Sam Boyd Stadium—a facility capable of supporting the 40,000 screaming rugby fans that First knew would now be much easier to lure. For with the 2009 Olympic announcement came a chain reaction of events that touched every corner of the American sporting world, from college athletics to major corporate sponsorship to government funding.
When I interviewed Mr. First at his 2011 event, it was clear that his plans for rugby's national showcase were constructed for both the near and medium terms:
Sevens is a growing sport around the world, and in North America this tournament is the flagship. In rugby you don't have stars, or at least American household-name stars, to market to potential fans, so we have started with those who already participate in the sport. We have over 180 teams here from North America and around the world, and they make up a good portion of the huge crowds we expect at Sam Boyd Stadium.
It is numbers like that which have assisted us in bringing this tournament to NBC.
Given the success of the USA Sevens event in Las Vegas during both 2011 and 2012, Mr. First and his team can be said to have succeeded in staging a world class event, despite his sport's relatively low public awareness across the country, but that awareness issue may already be starting to change. In 2012, the USA Sevens reported paid attendance of over 64,000, including a crowd of over 30,000 at Sam Boyd Stadium on the final day.
When the USA Eagles men's sevens team takes the field in Las Vegas this year, they will boast players such as Carlin Isles, a crossover star whose 100 meter time would have placed him in the semifinals of the London Olympic Games. New stars like Isles are being lured out of the unparalleled production line of U.S. colleges at an ever increasing rate, a trend that spells bad news for the sport's traditional rugby powers, like England and New Zealand.
Those in charge of building American rugby into a global powerhouse are confident that watching players like Carlin Isles—as he blasts past enemy tacklers live on network television—will keep the amazing momentum their sport has earned alive and well.
However, First and his team know that their dream of helping the U.S.A. to the medal podium in Rio is still a long way off. Despite the addition of a recent crop of crossover athletes from the ranks of college football and athletics, the USA Eagles men's team is still outside the top 10 in the IRB World Series rankings heading into the next round of competition.
That round will see sixteen teams battle it out in Wellington, New Zealand before making their way to Las Vegas on February 8th. While there, the ambitious fan may just want to check and see the odds being posted on an American Olympic win in 2016, for if the current trends surrounding Rugby Sevens continue in this country, you certainly wouldn't bet against it.