Come 2031, the United States will be the center of the rugby universe. The awarding of the sport’s most prestigious event to this country marks a pivotal moment. Will the Men’s Rugby Cup and ensuing Women’s World Cup—to be held in 2033, also in the U.S.—be the moment Americans see what they have been missing out on?
The parallels to when FIFA brough the soccer World Cup here in 1994 are obvious and apply to a certain degree. Of course, youth soccer already had a leg up on the professional game back then.
In some regards, rugby is ahead of the curve. There is Major League Rugby, an established men’s professional league, and no less than the president of the United States played the sport in college. A rugby ball sits in the oval office—the most obvious sign of political support that assisted the winning bid.
Brandy Medran, USA Rugby’s general manager of commercial and events, says the large “runway,” as she puts it, to the 2031 and 2033 Rugby World Cup puts the U.S. in a great position to build momentum to the event. Other large-scale rugby events have successfully been held here, but this could be the time the sport gains a foothold.
“This is the pinnacle rugby event,” she says. “This is going to be our springboard for our development as a sport, not only in terms of huge numbers and people watching, but in terms of our competitiveness at the national team level.”
Connect Sports talked to Medran about the winning bid, the buildup to the Cups and what comes next for the sport. Here are seven interesting facts about what the U.S. Rugby World Cup means.
2031 Will Be the Largest World Cup
One advantage the U.S. has over most countries is its readiness to host large international events—as seen when Los Angeles won the 2028 Summer Games. Typically, the Rugby World Cup is held in one host city, though it’s expanding to three in New Zealand. Medran predicts 10 to 15 U.S. cities will see a part of the action. Dallas and Charlotte were among the earliest cheerleaders on social media when the winning bid was announced. Meanwhile, Denver has already hosted a site visit—perhaps a sign of what’s to come.
Rugby Is Following in FIFA’s footsteps
The pool to host the Rugby World Cup comprises 25 destinations. The list is nearly identical to those bidding to host the 2026 World Cup—which is also being played in Canada and Mexico. That’s not an accident, says Medran. The bidders have experience prepping for international events already and should have the hotels and facilities needed. One difference, however, is rugby requires a larger playing surface than an American football stadium, so some stadiums will be eliminated rather quickly. One interesting item to watch is whether Baltimore and Washington, D.C., will remain split bids or will they merge as was done for the soccer pitch.
“I think the FIFA World Cup coming before ours is actually a really big help,” notes Medran. “It got people kind of in the groove of bidding for things and knowing that bigger tournaments are coming in different sports than just American football.”
It Will Be a Long RFP Process
The most apt industry comparison to the Rugby World Cup is a citywide conference or event, which also need years to plan, grand space for guests and training, and the ability to showcase the event properly. Narrowing the field to about half of the winning CVBs/sports commissions is a good problem to have for USA Rugby. Medran predicts about half will be awarded games, and the winning destinations could vary between the men’s and women’s World Cups. The current timetable is 2028.
This Isn’t Rugby’s First Event Here
Make no mistake about it, the 2031 and 2033 World Cups are by far the biggest buy-in to the U.S. rugby market. But there have been previous attempts to get the ball rolling. New Zealand’s fabled All Blacks squad played in front of sold-out crowds at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2014 (a win over the U.S.) and 2016 (a stunning defeat to Ireland). They are returning to face the USA at FedEx Field outside Washington, D.C., in 2023.
In 2018, San Francisco hosted the Rugby World Cup Sevens that features a version of the sport also adopted in the Summer Games. While the 2031 and 2033 Cups will have traditional teams of 15 squaring off, the ability to pull off the earlier event was a “test case” to prove the U.S. is ready for more, Medran says.
There Is Precedent for a Rugby Boom
Rugby pushing its traditional boundaries to expand its base is not unprecedented. When Japan hosted in 2009, it was not exactly an established rugby hotbed. But after the Cup, the sport is thriving there. The national team is ranked in the top 10. The hope is history will follow suit. Medran notes the biggest challenge in the U.S. market is the sheer volume of other sports available.
“They also announced the Japan World Cup about 10 years out and it took that full time to really make the impact they wanted to see,” says Medran. “So I think our timeline is good.”
The Women’s Game Is Expanding
USA Soccer made headlines recently in granting equal pay to the men’s and women’s teams. Rugby isn’t there yet, but the women’s game is making strides. A professional league just launched in the United Kingdom. The American women are ranked No. 7 in the world, and within spitting distance of its two closest competitors (Australia and Italy). The decision to pair the women’s Cup with the men’s in the bidding process figures to build momentum, especially in this country as women’s sports are increasingly gaining in popularity.
“Obviously hosting two tournaments is going to be harder than one,” says Bedram. “But there was no doubt we wanted both. We have an amazing opportunity.”
The Push for 2031 Begins Now
The U.S. men lag further behind the world rankings than the women. This is where the U.S. might be better off hosting in 2031 than 2027, its original target date. There is more time to attract coaches and staff with experience on rugby’s biggest stage. Likewise, the World Cup announcement is likely to increase the pool of talent looking to compete at the university and adult recreation level, to say nothing of the national events USA Rugby produces annually.
“We need to see that pipeline on the youth level, the collegiate level and even at the adult level expand and grow. We need to be getting more people in the United States playing the game. That's all part of the plan,” says Bedram.
The common thread for advancement for all levels is a need for increased sponsorship dollars to attract top talent and market the game to an audience unfamiliar with the sport’s nuances. Gaining bipartisan support from President Biden’s administration and Congress on the winning bid is certainly a good start, especially when considering today’s divisive political environment.
Photo Credit: World Rugby/Getty Images