Sevens and the 2028 Olympics: Twin launchpads for rugby in USA and Canada

The continuing success of sevens in Canada and USA will be key to awakening two of the game’s ‘sleeping giants’ in time for Rugby World Cups 2031 and 2033, a quartet of North American rugby luminaries tell broadcaster Rupert Cox.

When Prince Harry took to a Las Vegas stage a couple of days before Super Bowl LVIII to present the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, he joked, “I really love how you stole rugby from us and you made it your own”. 

Made it their own, they have: the 2024 Super Bowl was watched by an average of 123.4 million people in the USA alone, making it the most watched television broadcast since the 1969 Moon landings. 

In 2023, the Super Bowl generated over half-a-billion dollars in in-game commercial revenue for NBC; this year’s showpiece is expected to have generated more. In taking rugby and fashioning it into American Football, they have taken the oval ball to another stratosphere.

Guests at the casino appreciated Harry’s joke. But how many of those laughing in Vegas were aware that the USA will, in 2031, host the Men's Rugby World Cup, and the Women’s Rugby World Cup two years after that?

USA is the most addressable market for rugby with an existing and strong presence, huge potential and an audience primed for growth, and work is ongoing to raise the profile of the game.

And it does have an immediate in – thanks to rugby sevens.

HSBC SVNS 2024 rolls into Vancouver this weekend, and will be in Los Angeles a week later. I’ll be on the mic at both and would like to ask the question: what is being done to grow our great game in North America and to ensure that Teams USA and Canada are Rugby World Cup-ready in time for 2031? And how do we wake a sleeping giant of world rugby, the good ol’ US of A, from its slumber?

Elite-level competition

World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee, Canada Rugby’s Director of Commercial and Program Relations, and all round good guy, Gareth Rees, reckons it’s a question of consistent elite-level competition for players: “The Pacific Nations Cup [a revamped tournament featuring USA, Canada, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Japan] is the big one: it’ll be better for players, with more meaningful rugby,” he said. 

“Canada will now play a total of nine tests in 2024, which means we can better profile the game and increase reach and revenue. Scotland are also playing in Ottawa in July, which will be great for us.”

And Rees sees the sevens programme as integral to growth: “Each year, on one weekend, we put 70,000 fans inside a stadium in downtown Vancouver – that may happen in places like Edinburgh and Twickenham, but hardly ever in North America. 

“Sevens is still the biggest revenue driver and fan gateway for rugby in Canada.” 

Olympics draw

So what of the shorter format? Has rugby sevens confused the conversation when it comes to the development of 15s? USA Sevens men’s head coach Mike Friday is unequivocal that the game is vital to rugby’s future planning in America: “I’m biased, right?” he laughed, “but the draw of the Olympics is huge over here. LA 2028 is on the horizon and rugby sevens will have a part to play in the bigger picture. 

“It’s a big piece of the landscape to inspire the next generation of players to not only be rugby players but also Olympians. We must incorporate sevens into the strategic plan as they build to 2031, ’33 and beyond. But it needs proper money to operate and excel.”

Friday knows the challenges for rugby in such an enormous country are obvious, but has faith they can be overcome with a nationwide approach: “We need to create a genuine centralised pathway programme,” he said. 

“The ‘super sports’ like American Football and basketball will take priority for most [male] athletes between the ages of 19 and 21, but there are loads [of athletes] that don’t end up making it in the pros. Many of those can be welcomed into rugby.”

Having awarded the USA the Men's Rugby World Cup 2031, World Rugby has also taken the initiative to fast-track rugby development in the host country. Anthem Rugby Carolina (RC), a new Major League Rugby (MLR) expansion franchise based in Charlotte, North Carolina, was launched earlier this year. 

It’s a joint venture between USA Rugby, World Rugby and the MLR. Its goal is to develop and nurture players into elite rugby. It’s a big play from World Rugby, and presumably an expensive one. 

For Friday, it must be backed up by a coaching programme: “Anthem RC can provide USA Rugby with players to develop on a daily basis, but there is currently no US-wide coaching development programme to upskill coaches across the country. That is so crucial for rugby development in the USA if we’re serious about improving players and growing the game.”

Crossover athletes

Pat Guthrie is Chief Operating Officer of the American Raptors, a rugby club based at ‘Rugby Town’ in the city of Glendale, Colorado. The Raptors are mainly composed of crossover athletes who were once part of MLR, but now play in the Super Rugby Americas competition. 

Guthrie sees neither coaching programmes nor sevens as the main concern, but rather the eligibility to play in the national team: “Fourteen of the 15 New England players who started and won last year’s MLR final were not USA eligible,” he said.

“We at the Raptors are all about creating rugby players who can go on to be Eagles. Of our current squad of 34 players, 27 are USA eligible. 

“We think a union-driven and union-based high-performance model that Super Rugby Americas represents is a far more effective and well-designed concept for developing national team players, because you remove the competitive issues that have compelled MLR clubs to build teams full of non-US talent.” 

Super Rugby Americas includes franchise teams from Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. One only has to watch the performances of these nations at the last Men's Rugby World Cup to appreciate the potential. 

Guthrie identifies the next step in the development of North American players as the expansion of Super Rugby Americas to include additional teams from across the USA and Canada.

School sports

USA Rugby has announced a new CEO, Bill Goren, who most recently served as Deputy Commissioner to Major League Rugby, heading up their Rugby Marketing and Business Operations. Of his new role, Goren says he will be “focusing on genuine alignment as we work towards expanding the game, driving participation and interest at all levels of play and enhancing the USA Eagle’s prominence on the global stage.” 

Sounds promising, but with four MLR teams – LA Giltinis, Austin Gilgronis, Rugby New York and Toronto Arrows – dropping out of the competition in the last two years, Goren knows better than anyone the challenges facing USA Rugby as they look towards 2031 and 2033.

USA Men's Eagles legend, Director of AEG Rugby and HSBC SVNS LAX Dan Lyle told The Good, The Bad and The Rugby podcast that the long-term solution for 15s development cannot be just from the top down, but lies within high schools and universities: “I have three boys, and they all play rugby as well as soccer, American Football, basketball, every other sport,” he said. 

“But we need to make it understood that, like other sports, if you go to high school and play rugby, you can go to college – that every kid has the ability to play in a professional infrastructure at university level as a genuine pathway to their future, and maybe a parallel journey to the Olympics. 

“That journey of American rugby needs to be known and understood to Americans, it’s an enormous opportunity. World Rugby have bet their big shining object on America. We must succeed.”

By Rupert Cox