When the soccer World Cup came to the USA in 1994, there was great skepticism. Could a sport of low-scoring games played by unknown foreign stars capture the imagination of narrow-minded American fans? As it turned out, the answer was yes: the World Cup helped start a soccer boom in the United States and opened up a valuable new market for a global sport.
There is still a long way to go but rugby officials are hoping for something similar after awarding the 2031 men’s and 2033 women’s Rugby World Cups to the United States on Thursday. The 2031 tournament will be the first men’s Rugby World Cup to be played anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. (The women’s event was held in Canada in 2006.)
Because rugby’s reach is more geographically limited – only a handful of nations play it at elite level and only four have won its greatest league – the Rugby World Cup does not match the attendances of the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. But the men’s event is one of a few international competitions that can claim to be the third largest sporting event in the world. Rugby officials on Thursday, when announcing the hosts of five future tournaments, admitted they are looking to raise the profile and reach of the sport.
“Today we welcomed three exceptional Rugby World Cup host nations – England, Australia and the USA – who offer unprecedented security and an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate the growth and impact of rugby around the world,” said World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont, the schedule of events was approved by the World Rugby Council at its annual meeting in Dublin. “It’s great for rugby, for fans and for the host countries.”
The World Championships awarded to the United States were among five to conclude Thursday. All of the championships that will take place before the event comes to America have been handed to traditional powerhouses: France in 2023 and Australia in 2027 for the men and New Zealand in 2022, England in 2025 and Australia in 2029 for the women . The World Cups in England and Australia were approved at the same time as the USA’s bids on Thursday.
Rugby officials also said they were committed to developing relationships with national governing bodies in each host country. According to Beaumont, the goal is “long-term, sustainable development, also in the USA and in women’s football as a whole”.
While the US men have played in previous editions of the Rugby World Cup, they usually go head-to-head against the sport’s major powers. The Americans have qualified for the last six World Cups but only managed a 2:21 record. In October, the team lost their last international match against New Zealand, three-time world champions, 104-14.
The US women’s team has fared better on the field, winning the first World Cup in 1991 and finishing fourth at the last tournament in 2017.
However, rugby has always struggled to gain a foothold in America’s crowded sporting landscape, which is already packed with professional and collegiate games in sports far more familiar to American fans. International events have increasingly fascinated these fans, but football matches and Formula 1 racing are still a few steps ahead of rugby.
With their own eyes on the large and lucrative American market, cricket officials have taken a similar step, naming the USA alongside the West Indies to co-host the 2024 Twenty20 Men’s World Cup.