USA Rugby is the national governing body for rugby in America, and a member of the USOC and World Rugby. In 2016, Rugby Sevens returned to the Summer Games. USA Rugby works to develop the game on all levels and oversees four national teams, multiple collegiate and high school All-American sides, as well as an emerging Olympic development pathway for elite athletes. Rugby has also been designated an Emerging Sport for Women by the NCAA.
Sports Destination Management: Rugby is back in the Olympics. Are you seeing growth as a result?
Dan Payne: There has been, and continues to be, tremendous growth in the sport. Right now, we’re getting 250,000 to 300,000 impressions a day on the website. At the time of the Olympics, we were getting 36 million. It’s up to us as the governing body to make sure that interest turns into fans, and into participation.
We have had a lot of commercialization in the game and that has contributed to the growth. A few months ago, we sold out Soldier Field in Chicago for a game between Ireland and New Zealand. That helped prove you don’t need to have an American team to sell out a big facility.
SDM: It must have been great for Chicago.
Payne: It was. We had the field at a time when it wasn’t being used by the Bears, and what we saw was that a lot of people were flying in for the game. They were booking two- and three-night stays in the city.
SDM: When you’re looking for cities to host big events like that, what are you looking for in particular?
Payne: There has to be a local interest in rugby. Chicago has a very strong club scene and a lot of expats who have that grasp of the game. When we’re hosting a game, we also want to grow participation in and awareness of the sport. We know that with the right size stadium, the right climate and the right airport – in this case, we needed an international airport for the players who were flying in – that we could get a good fit.
SDM: Do you think there is more awareness among cities now of rugby?
Payne: Yes – we’re getting two to three inquiries a week about hosting any one of our 20 national championships. We also have a number of regional events we have to place.
SDM: Let’s talk a minute about what it takes to host. You had mentioned the strong club scene in Chicago. Does the presence of clubs and/or schools with rugby teams in an area play a role in hosting considerations?
Payne: We look for growth potential, and clubs and organizations are part of that. If there is a strong rugby community that is budding, an event can help move that along. We always want to help drive awareness, which drives the potential for increased participation.
SDM: In terms of facilities, what does rugby need? What is it using?
Payne: A lot of events can be hosted on the MLS (Major League Soccer) fields. We’re seeing a lot of fields being built with what are called sleeves for the goal posts. A rugby field is wider than a standard soccer field.
SDM: What is the growth like at the youth level?
Payne: Our major initiative is increasing participation among our five- to 12-year-old segment. The age group between seven and eight is our smallest and we want to grow that.
SDM: Is there any concern among parents because it is a contact sport?
Payne: There is always going to be concern when you’re talking about a contact sport. The way rugby is played, though, is all based around safety and technique. Players have never used pads or helmets because that’s not the kind of tackling there is; however, people still equate it with football. It’s closer to a combination of soccer, wrestling and basketball – all those skill sets. Safety is and always will be paramount in this game. As a matter of fact, we just signed a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) with USA Football – we’re teaching them how to give instruction in tackling that protects your head.
SDM: It sounds like USA Rugby is really working on engaging youth as well as parents.
Payne: We like to say our youth is our 401(K) and we need to invest in it now.
Sites for cities interested in gauging rugby interest: www.playrugbytoday.com, rookierugby.com