Open Mic: Rugby—The Best Sport No One Watches

Joe ReganCorrespondent IJuly 2, 2008

July 4th is a short time away, and we all know what that means...

It is almost time for the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island.

The day of the year that men like Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut become household names. The day that men who specialize in undertaking the most non-athletic form of competition possible (yes I know Kobayashi benches 405 or something ridiculous) get to be prominently featured on ESPN.

Good thing ESPN could pencil it in between the Spelling Bee, Billiards, Bowling, and re-airing number 1000 of the 2006 World Series of Poker.

To think what this time could be used for by ESPN. Like, possibly assisting the growth of rugby, one of the most popular sports in the world, in the USA. 

The Rugby World Cup (held every four years, the next one in New Zealand in 2011) is constantly one of the most popular sporting events in the world, only trailing the World Cup and the Olympics in international appeal.

Men like Dan Carter of New Zealand and Jonny Wilkinson of England are heroes in their native countries, and the sport has boasted impressive athletes like Jonah Lomu (6'5", 260 lbs, 10.89 100 meters).

Yet Rugby has spent years getting the extreme version of the hockey treatment from ESPN—if they don't own the rights to it, it doesn't exist.

Embarrassingly, the Rugby World Cup came and went in America without so much as the majority of people being aware of its existence. Too bad, we missed out on things like this and this. Feel free to notice the viewing statistic in the second video as well.

The debate has raged on whether shows like eating competitions, poker, and other grey-area sports should be featured on ESPN. I would take no issue with having them on as well, except for the short stick that other, much better sports get as a result.

I speak as a man who has actively played rugby for four years, and I know that rugby is challenging and often times confusing to the average viewer. However, it is a sport that has everything the average American sports fan has been drawn to from other sports.

It has brilliant skill plays, brilliant athletic plays, tough power plays, and hard hits. One could argue that its close similarity to football is a hindrance to the sport in the USA, yet Rugby Union and Rugby League do more than fine in Australia, despite the huge popularity of Aussie Rules football as the No. 1 contact sport in the country.

America cannot even field a national side made up of solely professional players most of the time, and only a few from the 2007 RWC roster play in a country's highest level professional league:

  • Mike MacDonald - Leeds: Guinness Premiership, England
  • Paul Emerick - Newport-Gwent: Magners League, Ireland, Scotland, Wales
  • Zee Ngwenya - Biarritz: Top 14, France

While no one could say that Rugby will ever ascend to the same stature as football, baseball, basketball, hockey, or even soccer, in the United States, one has to assume that additional exposure would be beneficial to the sport.

However, for some God-awful reason, ESPN seems to not want to give Rugby this exposure, electing instead to air the occasional match on ESPN U (essentially ESPN 3), and electing to put on useless programming instead.

Yet, hope is not lost among the rugby fanatics of America. Youth participation in the sport is increasing annually, and new clubs are springing up on a regular basis.

As a New Englander, it is hard to find a place in New England that is not within an hour of a men's-level rugby club to participate for, and the Boston area has nine teams to play on.

College rugby is experiencing a boom in participation, and more and more people are starting to discover the sport. Maybe one day, Rugby will catch on and attract a more mainstream crowd. But for now, it looks like the rugger needs to take a backseat to the guy going all in on a 9-6 off-suit.