Alex Magleby, coach of the USA Sevens national rugby team, stopped by Glen C. Taylor Elementary School in Henderson last week and chatted with fourth- and fifth-graders. Magleby, in town for the big USA Sevens rugby tournament that ended Sunday, asked the kids how many of them have seen a rugby game.
Dan Lyle, USA Sevens tournament director, recalled about 90 percent of the Glen C. Taylor students raised their arms.
All those hands in the air means the fan base for rugby and the sport’s popularity are growing in the United States.
It’s a challenge attracting fans, increasing sponsorship revenue and chasing TV broadcast shares when you’re promoting a niche sport such as rugby in this country.
Rugby’s World Cup may be one of the world’s premier sports events behind global leaders such as the Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, but in the U.S. rugby ranks far behind multi-billion-dollar money-makers like the NFL and Major League Baseball. Only about 15 Americans are contracted rugby players.
That’s why Lyle and other rugby organizers are using international events such as USA Sevens competition, which lasted from Friday through Sunday, as a platform to cultivate the next generation of rugby players and fans in this country.
“Hundreds of kids are playing and we’re establishing that fan base,” said Lyle, USA Sevens executive vice president.
Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S. In fact, the sport with the highest rate of newcomers and returners is rugby at 59 percent of its participants falling into that category, according to 2011 data supplied by the Silver Spring, Md.-based Sports & Fitness Industry Association, a trade organization for the sports and fitness industry of retailers, brands and suppliers.
Overall, there were 850,000 rugby participants in the U.S. in 2011, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association data. The sport will be featured in the 2016 Summer Olympics.
“The trend overall is that rugby is gaining higher,” said V.J. Mayor, an association spokesman.
Attendance for the 16-team tournament at Sam Boyd Stadium hit 67,431. Lyle, a former college football player who spurned a chance to play in the NFL to play rugby for a team in England, was hoping that attendance would reach 70,000. But 67,431 is about 3,300 more fans than in 2012, when the tourney drew 64,107. Ticket prices ranged from $20 to $300.
Involving kids at the grass-roots level is one marketing tool to grow the sport. During the tournament, the “Adopt a Country” program matched 16 Clark County elementary and middle schools with each of the 16 countries represented in the tourney. Local companies such as NV Energy kicked in about $20,000 to help pay for T-shirts, bus transportation and tickets so students could attend one of the games and be exposed to rugby, said Rob Cornelius, USA Sevens director of business development.
“We need to show the sport,” Cornelius said.
The Las Vegas Rugby Academy also has 150 kids playing rugby ranging in age from 6 to 17.
“You got to have a fan base and that leads to ticket sales and that leads to more sponsorships,” Cornelius said.
He noted USA Rugby is also helping the Nevada State Base Rugby Organization, a Little League for youth rugby players, to get kids playing and generate interest.
“We’re trying to cultivate the next Olympians and superstars,” Cornelius said. “That’s what sponsors and fans want to see.”
Contact reporter Alan Snel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-5273.