Charting Rugby’s Path to a Global Audience

When I was attending a British international school, we cherished the daily tradition of an afternoon rugby session.

When I was attending a British international school, we cherished the daily tradition of an afternoon rugby session. After classes, we tossed our school bags aside and ran to the fields, still in our uniforms. Whether we knew how to execute the stylish ‘step’ or even understood the rules, everyone joined in and played until we no longer could see the ball in the dark––a truly enjoyable experience and valuable time spent with friends. Yet, after moving to the United States, the lack of attention rugby receives took me by surprise. Rugby, though an official Olympic sport, seems to have failed to generate much interest at the international level. In revenue, the English Super League (which includes one French team) earns a mere $80 million dollars per year, while other top international sporting leagues like the UEFA Champions League, a European soccer competition, and Formula One, a motor racing championship, earn approximately $3.5 billion and $2.4 billion dollars, respectively. While it is true that rugby is relatively popular in British culture, here are a few factors that may have hindered rugby from going mainstream globally.

There are a variety of rugby leagues, with the most common type of rugby consisting of 15 players on each side. This means it’s difficult for any single player to stand out as an elite performer. Due to the collective nature of the game, one player’s talent is not conclusive in sealing the win; everyone plays an equally crucial role––be it the fly-half leading each attack or the tighthead prop maintaining the front line and enduring the most impact. Every sport has its easily identifiable star that gets the bulk of media attention and millions of dollars in sponsorship deals. Soccer has Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi; basketball has Lebron James and Stephen Curry; football has Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. That is not to say that rugby lacks its fair share of superstars. Yet, no matter how good a particular player is, there’s a high chance you won’t see his name on the score sheet at the end of the game. Supporters need a player they can consistently root for and follow; in rugby, by the time you realize who has the ball, it’s already been passed to another teammate.

Rugby’s popularity has also faltered due to safety concerns. Unlike football, rugby players wear just a mouthguard, though some opt for a scrum cap or thin shoulder pads. Research has shown that every rugby match has the equivalent level of impact on the human body of surviving a 50-mph car crash (yikes!). When these players are sprinting at full speed to one another with close to no protective gear, it is no surprise that accidents are common. Players are frequently rushed off the field with fractured bones, sprained ligaments, dislocated elbows, severe bruises, and concussions. Moreover, dangerous scrummaging is another source of injuries. A scrum is a method of restarting the play in rugby when there is a minor infringement of the rules––such as knock-ons, forward passing, or offsides––that involves players packing closely together and interlocking their heads, attempting to win possession of the ball. Such aspects of the game force players to endure immense pressure near the shoulder and spine area, especially when scrums collapse. The inner strength and courage within rugby players are remarkable, yet the sport barely guards against potential injuries, so ordinary people will most likely shy away and be attracted to safer sports.

So, what must change for rugby to climb the ladder of global success? Promoting safer versions of rugby, such as tag or touch rugby, might be the quickest way to garner people’s interest. Both touch and tag rugby are variations of the game that do not involve tackling, greatly limiting the possibility of injuries. Though non-contact, other versions of rugby can be played with great intensity; in fact, touch rugby exists as an organized sport in its own right. While some enjoy rugby’s traditional “tough-guy” nature, these modified versions of rugby may encourage more people to play the sport, increasing viewership and popularity.

In terms of changes to regulations, rugby should also consider modifying their scrum policies. While scrummaging has been an integral part of rugby tradition, it can often make the game repetitive to watch when a scrum fails multiple times. Hence, one way around the scrum issue would be to award the team in possession with a tap and go when a scrum collapses for the second time. This way, scrums won’t take up a large portion of the game, allowing for more fast-paced action.

Like any sport, rugby has its appeal––exciting crowds with intense tackles and a fast-paced territorial fight. In light of the dwindling global popularity, however, the World Rugby governing body may need to take note of certain criticisms of the game and how it is played. Maybe then, a wider audience might enjoy the excitement rugby has to offer.

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