Rugby World Cup Awarded to U.S. as ‘Sleeping Giant’ Charts Soccer’s Path

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The United States will host the men’s rugby World Cup in 2031 and the women’s edition in 2033, according to a decision announced this morning by World Rugby, the sport’s governing body. It’s the first time the men’s tournament will be held in the Western Hemisphere and brings with it the promise of vaulting rugby into the popular consciousness of the massive American market.

“I think it means everything,” U.S. Rugby executive chair Jim Brown said of winning the bid. “It’s the third-largest global sporting event in the world, and it’s ready to come to the top sports market in the world. That combination, and the sophistication of our sports industry here, will allow World Rugby to really grow it even further.”

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The award also means it’s the first time the men’s and women’s quadrennial events will be held back-to-back in the same host country and just the second time the men’s tilt has been held outside rugby strongholds of western Europe, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The 2019 tournament was played in Japan, which saw 1.7 million in total game attendance. Given the number of large stadiums potentially available, the U.S. event will probably be able to offer 3.1 million tickets in major cities across the country, according to Brown.

Hosting details still need to be hammered out, including finding host cities and venues as well as how to make money from the tournament, which will cost some $500 million, according to Brown. Unlike past World Cups, which required host nations to contribute funding, World Rugby will fully finance the event, with U.S. Rugby responsible for revenue generation to repay World Rugby plus some profit, the executive said. In addition to the sizable ticket inventory, broadcast rights will likely be in demand, and there should be excellent opportunities for corporate events given the quality of hospitality spaces newer stadiums have.

“They [World Rugby] referred to the United States as a sleeping giant, because there have been snapshots of very successful rugby experiences in the U.S.,” Brown said on a video call from Park City, Utah. “I come from the soccer world, and soccer wasn’t very much different. It wasn’t until the ’94 World Cup came [that we felt] that big responsibility to grow the game, and it’s very similar now.”

Brown, who has extensive experience in managing international sports competitions, including the U.S. 1994 men’s and 1999 women’s World Cup, said the state of rugby in the U.S. today is like soccer ahead of the World Cups of the 1990s. There are some key differences—rugby hasn’t had the equivalent of the New York Cosmos, a star-studded team in the late 1970s that captured national attention, and soccer didn’t have a top-tier pro league, whereas the U.S. has the 13-team Major League Rugby, which has operated since 2017. Still, if the soccer analogy seems a stretch, it’s probably not: According to a 1990 Chicago Tribune article, the game that placed the U.S. men’s team into the 1990 World Cup drew an 0.4 rating, less than third the rating of the NASCAR race on ESPN that led into it. According to Major League Rugby, more than 2 million households watched the MLR championship on CBS on 2021.

“It’s hard to quantify or categorize how far the sport can grow and what the impact can be on our community and our country, in a lot of ways,” Brown said.

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