Rugby in America? 5 Reasons It Won't Work in the U.S.
I recently had the pleasure of attending my first rugby match while in Manchester, England. I watched the hometown Sale Sharks man-handle a visiting El Salvadorean team 97-11 (that's not a typo).
It was a fascinating experience and a must-do for any sports enthusiast. But if the sport is so popular in England and many other parts of the world, why can't it take off in the U.S.?
The truth is that the sports culture in the UK and elsewhere is very different from American sports culture. It's not just that we have different standards for what can be considered as popular sports entertainment. We have different expectations too.
So as much as I enjoyed watching rugby, I know that it will never be big in the U.S. Here are five reasons why.
Who Are the Superstars?
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There are different rugby leagues within England and around the world, but the most common type of rugby involves 15 players from each side. That means it is nearly impossible for any single player to stand out as an elite performer.
Rugby is a true team sport so no matter how good one player is, he can't do anything without the help of his teammates. During the Sale match a player named Tom Brady (no, really) scoring three tries (the rough equivalent of a touchdown) to lead all players. But his success is as much a testament to his talent as it is to the circumstances of his position on the field during the scores.
American sports fans love superstars. Every sport has its easily identifiable stud that gets the bulk of the media attention and millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. Basketball has Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant. Football has Peyton Manning and Tom Brady (the one who plays for the New England Patriots). Baseball has Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer. Even soccer has Landon Donovan.
That's not to say there are no stars in professional rugby. But no matter how good a particular player is, there's still a chance he won't show up in the box score at the end of the day. Fans need someone they can root for every time he touches the ball. In rugby, by the time you realize who has the ball he's already passed it off to someone else.
Just Too Dangerous
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The best way I can explain rugby so that a casual football fan could understand it is that it's a never-ending punt return, with laterals, and no pads.
The tour guide who showed me around the Sale Sharks stadium prior to the game said that every rugby match has the equivalent impact on the human body of surviving a 50-mph car crash.
These guys don't even wear helmets when they're sprinting at each other trying to make an open-field tackle. Injuries are obviously very common and it is quite the accomplishment to make it through a full season without having to be helped off the field.
To their credit, rugby players respect this reality. They don't try to knockout their opponent with a bone-crushing tackle because the impact of the tackle would likely hospitalize both players. Instead, they try to grab the legs and slow the progression of the ball or force a turnover.
American athletes are groomed a bit differently. In our smash-mouth football culture, it's common to send a message to the opposing team by targeting a particular player and driving him into the ground. If rugby were played this way, someone would be killed.
The strength and bravery with which rugby players walk out onto that field is remarkable. It's a fantastic sport that can be played in a way so as to minimize injuries. But after decades of watching football, American sports culture is so ingrained with the fight-first mentality that legitimizing professional rugby in this country is simply too dangerous.
Lack Of Definable Stats
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When it comes to sports, American fans feed off statistical evaluations. There has been a recent trend towards putting everything a player and a team does into numbers, starting with the sabermetrics movement in baseball and gradually shifting towards basketball and football. Every sport has at least a dozen major statistical categories, and possibly hundreds more that involve complex mathematical formulas to try and determine a particular athlete's true value.
Rugby, meanwhile, has three stats. You get five points for a try, two points for a conversion (think PAT in football), and three points for a drop kick or penalty kick (think field goal). There's no stat for tackles, or strips, or assists, or anything. Just those three.
This may make the scorekeeper's job easier, but it would make the sport dull to Americans who love to study the postgame box scores. Every sports fan thinks he or she can be an analyst just by looking at the numbers. It's what makes sports so popular here—the notion that anyone is allowed to have an opinion.
What would American rugby fans discuss? How Player A outperformed Player B? They need hard data to point at as evidence for whatever claim they are trying to make. Otherwise it just becomes an empty argument. Stats are the foundation of healthy and spirited discussion, usually.
Will Always Be a Second Tier Sport
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Professional rugby players are, without a doubt, among the world's best and toughest athletes. But any respectable college football program could step onto that field for the first time and dominate an opposing rugby team. A professional football player like Adrian Peterson would be simply unstoppable. The difference in size, speed, and strength is just that colossal.
Most rugby players are short and stout, which is perfect suited for pushing giant piles of people. But in the open field most players struggle to go much more than a few yards before being brought down or passing the ball.
If NFL players were taught how to properly play rugby, they would dominate the international scene. It wouldn't even be close. The NFL has guys who are twice as big and twice as fast as anyone on a rugby pitch.
But no rugby league will ever pay as much as the NFL does. The physical freaks of nature which populate the NFL will have no reason to switch sports, which means that rugby instantly becomes a second rate sport.
Americans are used to having the best of the best. The best basketball league in the world is in the U.S., as is the world's premier baseball league and hockey league. There's no way rugby would ever become popular if the world's best leagues are in the UK and Australia.
If soccer can't do it, neither can rugby.
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Rugby is called a "hooligan's game played by gentlemen," while football is a "gentlemen's game played by hooligans." Sad to say, but it appears that Americans prefer the hooligans to the gentlemen.
American sports fans and the mass media feed off of controversy and breaking news stories, such as the recent allegations against New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre that he sent inappropriate text messages to an attractive sideline reporter.
This sort of thing doesn't happen in rugby, although it does appear to be happening with increasing frequency in English football (soccer). Players respect each other and whatever happened on the field generally stays on the field. There's never any need to escalate the conflict.
Even as I watched Sale humiliate El Salvador, the visiting team never got angry that the Sharks may have been running up the score. Nor did they give up even when the game was clearly out of reach. In the final minutes of the match El Salvador played hard to keep the Sale score under 100, and they succeeded.
Perhaps American sports fans are simply wired differently. Sports for them is more than just a matter of entertainment, it often becomes a life or death struggle (see any Boston Red Sox fan before 2004). Having a team lose that badly would be considered a form of personal humiliation, and would likely lead to serious physical altercations.
Rugby is somehow too cultured for the U.S. It's an ancient game that has only recently been made into a major international sport. While the U.S. has a national team and several amateur leagues scattered throughout the country, rugby has still yet to emerge in the public consciousness. Maybe it never will.