Rugby union bets it can conquer America with its World Cup

The sport is expected to award the 2031 men’s World Cup and the 2033 women’s World Cup to the U.S., where its popularity is modest and the national federation was recently in bankruptcy proceedings.

The United States is hoping hosting the Rugby World Cup will help boost the sport in the country. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
The United States is hoping hosting the Rugby World Cup will help boost the sport in the country. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

In 1920 and 1924, the U.S. won Olympic gold medals in rugby—and then the sport largely receded from view there. Now rugby is about to complete its century-long climb back to the American spotlight.

At a meeting in Dublin on Thursday, the World Rugby Council awarded the 2031 men’s Rugby World Cup and the 2033 women’s World Cup to the U.S.

The move is a gamble that a premier global sporting event can stage its biggest event in a place where its audience and participation are modest—and the national federation, Rugby USA, was in bankruptcy proceedings as recently as 2020.

Rugby types like to say their quadrennial showpiece ranks behind only soccer’s FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics in global sporting interest. An EY report on the 2019 tournament, held over 44 days in prepandemic Japan, claimed the event added 2.3 billion pounds to the host nation’s GDP and attracted 242,000 international fans who stayed an average 17 days.

The 2019 Rugby World Cup was a huge financial boost to Japan. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
The 2019 Rugby World Cup was a huge financial boost to Japan. Picture: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Rugby USA projects 3.1 million tickets could be sold for a 48-match men’s World Cup. Two dozen cities have pledged to host matches in either or both 2031 and 2033. President Biden wrote a letter of support to World Rugby in early April.

Rugby’s presence in the U.S. remains small, though. USA Rugby says there are now about 109,000 registered high school, college and adult players, but half that number drop out annually. The pro Major League Rugby (MLR) is in its fifth year and averages about 3,000 spectators per match for its 13 teams, which operate under a $500,000 annual salary cap.

USA Rugby officials forecast the events will cost $500-600 million to host, and World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin says the global governing body will seek private capital sources to help fund the sport’s growth in the U.S. during the next decade and hopefully beyond.

The awarding of the tournament to the U.S. is the culmination of an unlikely quest by the country’s rugby enthusiasts, who put time, effort and their own money into securing.

The Rugby World Cup is regarded as behind only football’s World Cup and the Olympics. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
The Rugby World Cup is regarded as behind only football’s World Cup and the Olympics. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images

Darren Gardner, a native of Australia who is an employment relations partner for a San Francisco firm, has spent 22 years in the U.S. spreading the rugby union gospel, coaching junior teams and more recently as part-owner of MLR’s San Diego Legion. His fellow devotees include real estate financier Ryan Patterson, also a one-time junior rugby coach whose investments include a San Diego restaurant group.

Another enthusiast is fitness group F45 Holdings chief executive Adam Gilchrirst, an Austin, Tex-based Australian who sells his own beer and cocktail drinks on the sidelines at home games of his MLR teams, the LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis. (The team names combine Gilchrists’ surname with a Martini and a Negroni, respectively.)

The trio lead a group that has quietly bankrolled the four-year effort to win the World Cup bid, paying for feasibility studies and consultancy work.

“The U.S. rugby community is as passionate as any in the world and I believe that hosting RWC will transform the sport of rugby in the U.S.,” says Gardner.

The USA has so far failed to advance from the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup. Picture: Francois Nel/World Rugby/Getty Images
The USA has so far failed to advance from the pool stages of the Rugby World Cup. Picture: Francois Nel/World Rugby/Getty Images

Yet there is still a feeling of incredulity in local rugby circles that the showpiece of their sport is about to be awarded to the U.S.

“There’s an almost an ‘I can’t believe this is going to happen’ feeling still going on within the rugby community and there’s also an element of ‘I don’t know if they know what’s coming either’ — it’s going to be huge,” says Rugby USA chief executive Ross Young.

Gilpin says the sport could easily keep rotating its World Cup between established rugby nations like England; 2023 host France; New Zealand, home of the fearsome All Blacks; and South Africa. But that would not fulfill its mandate to grow the sport internationally.

“If we’re going to create the kind of growth — audience growth, revenue growth and ultimately hopefully participation growth — it is through these events in the U.S.,” says Gilpin.

The U.S. has since gained “preferred candidate” status for 2031 and 2033 (Australia has it for 2027 and 2029 for the women’s event) and has been in “targeted dialogue” with World Rugby.

“It means we are not talking to anyone else,” World Rugby’s Gilpin tells the Journal.

America has a small but dedicated rugby fanbase. Picture: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
America has a small but dedicated rugby fanbase. Picture: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

There is still considerable risk. USA Rugby entered into, and later exited, chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020. The nonprofit cited “existing financial challenges” that were accelerated by Covid, including a $40 million lawsuit brought by event promoter United World Sports over the loss of a contract to run the annual USA 7s tournament. The lawsuit was later settled for $200,000 and USA Rugby then exited chapter 11, with World Rugby pledging support. Under a new operating model, World Rugby will take on more of the financial burden, and hopefully the reward, of hosting all future World Cups.

Private-equity firms CVC Capital Partners and Silver Lake have invested in rugby, paying $509 million for a 14.3% stake in the annual men’s Six Nations tournament and a still to be determined share of the $2.34 billion New Zealand Rugby commercial venture respectively.

“There are lots of parties interested in investing in sport more broadly, and certainly lots of parties that are interested in investing in rugby. Can we work with some of those parties to drive some parts of that plan more effectively? The answer is probably yes.”

Growth plans include more matches for U.S. national teams in a regular calendar, a target of 450,000 players by 2031, a Pan-Pacific competition for the women’s team and NCAA recognition for women’s’ rugby.

US president Joe Biden is a big rugby fan and supports plans to bring the World Cup to American shores. Picture: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images
US president Joe Biden is a big rugby fan and supports plans to bring the World Cup to American shores. Picture: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

Killebrew says expansion of MLR, which for now features veterans from around the world and young local players, is in the works and envisages the possibility of a 28-team competition by 2031. “We look for $25 million from potential owners, in expansion fees and working capital, and interest has certainly grown with the upcoming World Cup announcement.”

All that is left now for a better performance on the field. The women’s side is ranked sixth and will play in their World Cup in New Zealand in September.

Meanwhile, the men’s USA Eagles have struggled through their qualifying section for 2023, with many of its European-based players not released by their clubs, and face Chile in a two-match repechage in July to win through to France next year.

USA Rugby’s Young winces at the topic, but says the Eagles should get through. “Touch wood it’s a better time of year to be playing the games, given the European season will be over.”

John Stensholt
John StensholtEditor, The List

John Stensholt joined The Australian in July 2018. He writes about Australia’s most successful and wealthy entrepreneurs, and the business of sport. Previously John worked at The Australian Financial Review and BRW, editing the BRW Rich List. He has won Citi Journalism and Australian Sports Commission awards for his corporate and sports business coverage. He won the Keith McDonald Award for Business Journalist of the Year in the 2020 News Awards.