By Jack Clark
These comments were made by Jack Clark, the head coach of the United States Eagles, to delegates at the International Rugby Board Conference in Vancouver, Canada on 10/13/98.
The IRB delegates have spent considerable time at this conference discussing the Charter of the Game and how it should be played, coached, and refereed. But I have been asked to offer some insight into rugby in the United States.
My report starts with one word: globalization, true globalization, the penetration of rugby into more and more countries. As an American who has devoted much of his life to rugby, I believe the United States is key to the next phase of rugby's growth. My prediction is: "Get ready for a breakthrough in my country." Now, some of you may have heard this prediction before--a prediction that didn't come true. You may think of the United States as the "sleeping giant" of world rugby. And you're right that the breakthrough hasn't happened yet; but it's about to. Today a lot of the world perceives the US as a "sleeping giant," snoring away peacefully. But reality is about ready to catch up with that perception. Consider the dynamics of the US sports entertainment market. Giant? Yes. Sleeping? Far from it. If anything, the US market is hyperactive and therein lies rugby's great opportunity.
US Sports Market
Last year, US spectators spent $6 billion attending their favorite sports events. Six billion dollars! Just last weekend, more than three-and-a-half million tickets were sold for college football games (that's American football) and another million for professional contests. So last weekend in the US, over four-and-a-half-million tickets sold for a single sport.
Rugby's Current Market
By comparison, a weekend in the Allied Dunbar League will see fewer than 50,000 fans in the stands. A good Super 12 weekend might draw 300,000 fans. And the entire 1999 Rugby World Cup won't achieve half the ticket sales of an autumn weekend on the American gridiron. The meaning of these numbers is crystal clear. Americans have a huge appetite for a tactical contact sport that features running, tackling, and kicking. This giant is wide awake; actually, it was never asleep. It was simply going its own way. Back at the beginning of this century, rugby was an important sport on many American university campuses and the US even won back-to-back Olympic gold medals. Rugby missed an opportunity at that time to establish itself as a major sport; instead the US developed its own code-- gridiron football--interestingly founded by a Yale University scrumhalf named Walter Camp. We could look back at an opportunity lost, but we can't rewrite history. So let's look at the opportunities that lie ahead.
Difficulties Faced By USA Rugby
The United States' of America Rugby Football Union was founded in 1975. That's a dot of time in rugby's long and honorable history, but since that dot of time we have come a long way, despite the fact that USA Rugby was established in an extremely adverse climate. We were developing your sport in our country. To get a feeling for the difficulties of establishing rugby in the US, imagine for a moment that you are launching American football in a country where rugby reigns. First, there would be no gridiron culture. You would have no connection to the sporting mainstream and only small pockets of fans and supporters. Most of these would consist of American expatriates whose credentials might be in question at home, but have suddenly become your best "experts." With such meager support, your sport cannot get traction. You lack access to good fields and have no clubhouses. You change for training in your car. There are few coaches (except those American "accents") and there is no technical or administrative infrastructure.
No Media Coverage
Your news media don't understand gridiron, so they don't cover it. Indeed, the media don't really think of yours as a competitive sport. Rather, they think of American football in your country as an oddball recreational activity. You cannot find sponsors and, lacking money, you cannot offer bursaries for promising young gridiron players, nor can you offer them any professional path whatsoever. Meanwhile, the best young athletes have already been drawn to rugby and soccer careers and thus you are cut off from building an elite player pool. Without top athletes and without sponsorship dollars, your game is not really worthy of television coverage. And, to complete the chicken-and-egg cycle, without television coverage there is no hope of big-time sponsorship money. The problems I've asked you to imagine were the actual ones facing us when we established USA Rugby in 1975. These problems were compounded by geography. We were attempting to organize rugby across a continent 3,000 miles wide -- distances only Canadians can fully appreciate.
The men and the women who founded USA Rugby in 1975 wanted nothing less than a rebirth of rugby--they wanted it to set down roots permanently. Today--twenty-three years later--we have some 700 senior clubs, 650 collegiate clubs, and more than 200 age-grade programs registered with the union. We have 38 sub-unions organized into seven territories. We conduct national championships at ten levels and field six national teams, including both sexes. Contrast this with the picture in the 1950s when we had a total of 30 teams in our entire country!
Despite the challenge of spanning a 3,000-mile-wide continent and despite the relative youth of our governing structure, USA Rugby recently gained membership with the United States Olympic Committee. This acceptance is important to us. Combined with the recent success of 7s at the Commonwealth Games, we hope our USOC alliance will help boost rugby's bid to be a part of the Olympic Games in 2004. So, in one generation, dedicated men and women have labored patiently out of the limelight to build USA Rugby's administrative structure. The work has been unglamorous, but essential. In two decades, they have achieved what many unions had the luxury of developing over nearly a century. Of 81 unions recognized by the IRB, USA Rugby is among the youngest 20 and is the newest in the Americas.
Rugby Is Now Ready
In the US, rugby is now ready to converge with the American passion for sports to produce a major new sport. I could not have said this a few years ago, for our organization was still finding its way and rugby itself was not ready for the US market. It is only in recent years that rugby has seriously examined the appeal of its "product" to its existing customers and potential fans. Only in recent years has rugby looked at its product through the prism of a business model. In business, after all, you don't blame the customer if the product isn't ready for the market. It was only after we examined the product that we realized it was at risk of stagnating on the field. It is clear that rugby has become a faster, more dynamic, game in a very short period of time. Prior to this examination, our marketing and merchandising programs were rudimentary and would not have dented the American consumer market. We saw television broadcasting that was below standard for the US market. If the TV crews used more than one camera, it wasn't evident. Broadcasts lacked the drama of close-ups and there was little in the way of instant replays, reverse angles, or graphics, all of which US viewers had long been used to. Lacking the close-up feeling of action, televised rugby in those days could not have held the interest of American viewers for more than a few minutes. But all that has changed in recent years and coverage is now increasingly sophisticated.
Rugby has now adopted a worldview and has literally changed the rules. As a result, the rugby community has been galvanized by such initiatives as the Commonwealth Games 7s, the Tri-Nations, and the Rugby World Cup, with their great commercial and promotional value. The eldest of these properties recently turned eleven, and all have been spectacularly successful. We'd like to think that our three-year-old Pacific Rim Championship can one day reach these same heights. This evolution, this broadened worldview, hasn't been without pain, and the process of globalization is never quite finished. But all of us must admit, until we adopted a business mindset about our game, rugby was not ready to tackle new territories, particularly a sports market such as the United States. For too many years, we simply did not prepare our sport for growth. Happily, today rugby is ready and that can mean a big break in the American sports entertainment market. And when you get a break in the US market, it is a very big break indeed.
Look at soccer. In 1994 when the World Cup was held in the US, it sparked a surge of interest in the sport. Today there are more than 13 million soccer players in the US under the age of 18, and an additional three million adults. Those three million adult soccer players are equal to the population base that produces the All Blacks (give or take Samoa). Professional soccer in the US is only three years old. This season it will play in front of two-and-a-half million spectators and has sponsor agreements worth $80 million. Although a long way from being considered a world soccer power, the US has definitely become a world-class consumer of the sport.
America's surge of interest in soccer was media-driven. Today, new media such as the Internet offer rugby fresh opportunities. As recently as 1990, Americans who loved the global game of rugby had to have the persistence of a bulldog to follow it. You'd go to the local tobacco shop to buy an overseas newspaper to read someone's account of what happened a week-and-a-half earlier. Today you can follow it hour by hour. The Internet has changed forever rugby's flow of information and visual images.
While the Internet is a blessing for rugby in America, television has provided us with our most important breakthrough. Until recently, rugby in the US was never on TV, and I mean never. Then, three years ago, we secured coverage of our home internationals with our media partner BSkyB and Fox Sports Net. Their support gave us access to 57 million American homes--from zero to 57 million homes in the length of time it takes for a satellite feed to cross the country. Now, not all of those homes immediately tuned us in, but our audience is established, it is loyal, and it is growing. Before our games were televised, we seemed so remote from the mainstream that even friends and family members would ask us how our "soccer" was going!
As rugby continues to grow in the US market, potential benefits expand not only for North America, but for every rugby playing nation on earth. For our overseas visitors here tonight, let me say this: Get ready for your game being worth more as rugby takes off in America. The value of the intellectual property that you, as custodians of the game, have nurtured will increase dramatically. Consider this: World television rights to the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia last month were sold for some US $30 million while the rights to the Atlanta Olympic Games went for US $590 million. Much of that added value derives from the American market, where the Commonwealth Games are not seen, but where the Olympics dominate prime time. Or to use a Canadian example of added value, note that the National Hockey League gives what is an international sport access to the US market. About three-fourths of the league's players are Canadian. Canadians in Dallas play against Canadians in New York and US fans flock to the games, which in turn drives TV demand.
The world's most valuable sports franchises are those that are actively engaged in the global market. The English soccer team Manchester United is worth a billion dollars while the most recently sold NFL franchise, the Minnesota Vikings, went for only half that amount. Brazil's national soccer team, a true international brand, has an agreement with Nike that is worth an estimated $200 million. As the globalization of rugby progresses, we can anticipate that all of our leading brands will command the same type of value.
1999 World Cup
The next landmark for globalization will be 1999's Rugby World Cup. Spiro Zavos, a perceptive writer with the Sydney Morning Herald, observed that the most significant fact of the 1998 international season was the qualification of the United States for the next World Cup, because it provides rugby with an opening to the huge US market. Being presented with an opportunity is one thing, seizing it is another. World soccer did it and rugby can as well. We are working with our US broadcast partner, the Fox Network, to make sure that the 1999 Rugby World Cup is televised as widely as possible. In fact, Fox is committed to televising every match in the US. Many games, particularly those involving the US early on as well as the quarterfinals and beyond, will be broadcast in excellent air times. Distribution will be in the range of 60 million households. Contrast this with the 1991 and 1995 Rugby World Cups, when the games were only remotely available in the States.
We are at work on at least one major initiative to capitalize on the World Cup: the creation of an international 7s tournament in the US. We are already into comprehensive planning, and hope it will be part of the IRB's emerging Grand Prix 7s circuit. The idea is simple, but a big one. On one weekend a year the world will come to America to watch the globe's best rugby players. Similar to other great 7s tournaments, we are aiming to give our international visitors a complete experience--a competitive, exciting event and a holiday to remember.
The American Player
Now, I'd like to say a few words about the typical American rugby player. While the market-driven aspects of our sport fit the American way of doing things, so does rugby's amateur spirit. American clubs are made up of men and women who think of themselves simply as "rugby players." They don't think about the categories of professional or amateur. They play for the pure love of the game. Americans regard rugby as authentic, and it is the authenticity of the game that Americans find most enjoyable. We don't want rugby to become gridiron.
Opening The US Market
To come full circle, expanded globalization is the key to new levels of popularity and success for rugby. Opening up the US market, beginning with the World Cup next year, will trigger that expanded globalization. Winston Churchill once said something that I think fits us today. He said: "It is better to be making news than taking it." Rugby has been making news the last few years. In the passive mode, not much came our way. But as activists, we find the world is opening up to our game. Now, if we will seize the new opportunities that globalization presents us, we can make rugby the sports success of the new century.