HOUSTON (Reuters) - A rugby revolution is taking place in the United States where it is hoped the launch of a new professional league will unlock the potential of the game in the world’s biggest sports market, former Ireland international Justin Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick is coach of the Houston SaberCats, one of seven sides competing in the inaugural season of Major League Rugby (MLR) that kicked off last month, the latest attempt by the 15-man game to gain traction in North America.
“The potential in this market is huge and rugby has been the fastest growing sport in the U.S. in the past five years,” Fitzpatrick told Reuters. “Major League Rugby is the logical step in unlocking that potential and already we are seeing a tremendous response to the competition.
“I firmly believe that in 15 or 20 years, Major League Rugby could rival Super Rugby and the top European leagues. That is the potential that exists here from both a playing and commercial point of view.”
Prior to the start of the season, MLR signed television deals with ESPN and CBS Sports Network, which ensured that all 31 games will be broadcast nationally.
“We are the first professional sport to have a national broadcasting deal right out of the gate. That is huge,” Fitzpatrick said.
“When you combine the elements that our game has visually – it is a fast-paced and collision-based sport, but also has the elements of respect, it is an easy sell to America. Once they are exposed to it, as they have been in growing numbers, they fall in love with the sport.”
The league currently has teams from Austin, Houston, Glendale (Colorado), New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle and Salt Lake City, with a New York side to start competing from 2019.
“To have an American competition that brings that inter-city rivalry and allows rugby to be accessible to more local markets is going to really help grow the game,” Fitzpatrick said.
“In an American sporting context, that’s how it works – Seattle playing Houston, Chicago playing Atlanta. You have to have that intercity rivalry.
“If we can get 10-12 teams in the next few years, which is looking very promising, we will be in a strong position.”
With teams restricted to five foreign imports, MLR is hoping to draw players primarily from two areas – both largely untapped to this point.
“How many incredible athletes fall just short of making it to the major sports in America? Be it American football or basketball, only a very small percentage go on to play professionally,” said Fitzpatrick.
“But what happens to the rest? Most just give up, but we want to be able to give those tremendous athletes an opportunity to play professional sport. We have already had players cross over with some success.
“Most have never played rugby before, so it is a process to teach them the sport, but they come with such incredible athletic ability that it is very exciting.”
Fitzpatrick acknowledges that for rugby to truly succeed in the U.S., they need players engaged from an early age, not only to play the game, but also become supporters of the sport.
“Over the last five years a lot of that has happened at youth and high school level. Even 10 years ago, most guys or girls were coming into the sport at the college level,” he said.
“That is starting to change and in terms of demographic, youth and schools rugby is much bigger than club rugby in Houston.
“We understand that we need to expose kids to rugby at earlier ages and give them avenues to play and compete. We have been partnering with high schools and colleges to help grow their efforts and now we can offer them a professional team as an outlet.”
The SaberCats are also hoping to break ground on their own stadium in Houston this month.
“To be building what will be the number one purpose-built rugby stadium in the U.S. is very exciting,” he said.
“It speaks volumes about how far the game has grown that people, whether it be in the corporate world, government or the local community, are so excited about rugby.
“I toured here with Ireland in 2000 and we played in New Hampshire in front of 2,000 or 3,000 people. Fifteen years later I was sitting in a box at Soldier Field, one of the most iconic venues in sport, with 65,000 people there to watch the USA play New Zealand.
“Look on cable TV and see how accessible rugby is, when it wasn’t probably even 10 years ago. Whether it is Super Rugby, the (English) Premiership, Championship Rugby or the Six Nations, it is there to be watched.”
Reporting By Nick Said, editing by Pritha Sarkar