This summer, it is the “other World Cup.” One week after soccer’s grandest tournament ended in Russia, the rugby world has converged on this city for a far more modest competition.
The Rugby World Cup Sevens, which begins Friday at AT&T Park, consists of 24 men’s teams and 16 women’s teams vying for a world championship in the wide-open, high-octane, seven-player version of the sport. It is expected to draw about 100,000 fans. NBC Sports Network will televise the event, one of the biggest gatherings for rugby sevens, and American ruggers accustomed to toiling in the shadows hope it will be another step toward establishing the sport’s legitimacy in the United States.
The tournament comes at a crucial moment for rugby in America, where the sport’s advocates have been promising a rugby boom for a generation. But a little more than a year ahead of the big-boy Rugby World Cup in Japan for the 15-player version of the sport, American rugby has struggled in recent months to overcome infighting, miscalculations and excessive optimism.
Several top executives and board members at U.S.A. Rugby, the national governing body, left in recent years as their plans to bolster the sport, including the organization of this Rugby World Cup Sevens, went awry. The most notable misstep was starting a for-profit marketing and media company that included a digital network to stream competitions. The venture sputtered from the start. Its operations are being folded back into U.S.A. Rugby.
Then there is the tension over how to spend the organization’s scarce resources. Some advocates lean toward building up the national team to try to create positive publicity for the game. Others say more money should be funneled into the youth game to produce the players of tomorrow.
“It’s a double-edged sword because for a long time it’s been an upside-down pyramid, where adults paid most of the dues and got most of the benefits,” said Paul Bretz, a school principal in Newark, Calif., who runs youth rugby programs. “But if the goal is to grow the youth game, the funding needs to go to the kids.”
Rugby’s boosters point to statistics showing it is the fastest growing team sport in America. According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, 1.6 million people played rugby at least once last year, nearly twice as many as in 2012. The number of people who played at least eight times has risen 45 percent over the same period.
A growing proportion of these participants are young, not just the college students who have been the core group of players for years. (The game is played on about 900 college campuses, though almost entirely on the club level.)
Players, coaches and administrators hope this Rugby World Cup Sevens, the first on American soil, will finally inch the sport closer to the mainstream, much the way soccer capitalized on the 1994 FIFA World Cup.
“We’re just on the cusp,” said Will Chang, a former board member at U.S.A. Rugby who helped win the bid to host the World Cup Sevens. “Twenty years ago, soccer was very much a castoff sport. Rugby is probably no different than soccer was in the early 1990s.”
The problem with the analogy is that rugby supporters have been using it for years, and despite promising signs, like the growth in participation and a new professional league, rugby remains a niche sport in a very crowded landscape.
Also, this World Cup Sevens has had its hiccups. The original bid for the event did not anticipate the cost of housing all 500 or so players, transporting them around the Bay Area and finding places for them to practice. As a result, Ross Young, the interim chief executive of U.S.A. Rugby, said the event would be lucky to break even, a far cry from the $4 million profit the organizers hoped to generate.
“U.S.A. Rugby didn’t really understand or care to research the amount of money it would take to get the World Cup off the ground in such an expensive city,” said Matt McCarthy, the editor of Rugby Wrap Up, a rugby news site.
In the United States, rugby has long been defined as a sport you picked up after you finished playing sports like football and wrestling. Several members of America’s sevens team are converted football players, including Perry Baker, who once had a contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Last season, he was named sevens player of the year. As good as he is, he still must defend the sport to rugby purists who consider sevens the equivalent of arena football.
“I’m always getting attacked by people who say, come play real rugby,” Baker said. “Honestly, there’s no difference. All your skills are more under duress because the passes are longer, you have to be more accurate with your tackling. No disrespect to 15s, but I get tired of seeing people say, real rugby, fake rugby.”
Baker’s success aside, Paul Santinelli, a new board member at U.S.A. Rugby, said getting children to pick up the game was a key to the sport’s long-term health.
Despite rugby’s rough-and-tumble image, he insisted the game was safer than football, especially at the youth level. Parents are rightly worried about the impact of concussions on their children’s health. But Santinelli and others note that tackling in rugby involves using the shoulder and arms to wrap opponents and take them to the ground. The lack of helmets and shoulder pads means players avoid leading with their heads when tackling.
“I tell kids, there’s a position everywhere on the pitch for you, no matter what size and shape you are,” said Santinelli, 49, who still plays club rugby. “You can play at different schools and way into your adult years.”
Who pays for the grass-roots efforts is another question. Without a windfall from the World Cup or the media venture to fill its coffers, U.S.A. Rugby is trying to forge a new path. A consulting firm has been hired to identify flaws and propose solutions. Much of the debate at the organization, which has about $12 million in annual revenue, is over what to emphasize.
Neil Foote, a New Zealander who coaches at the San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby club, one of the largest on the West Coast, said rugby veterans needed to stop comparing their sport to other sports. Better to focus on the sport’s best attributes, which include teamwork, respect for the referees and opponents, and the need to think for yourself on the field.
“You need to invest in young kids so in 10, 15 years it pays dividends,” Foote said. “If you don’t plant a tree, you’re going to keep buying someone else’s wood.”
While the rugby establishment pours resources into the national teams, with some success — the men’s and women’s sevens teams are both ranked in the top 10 — attempts to begin professional leagues have hit roadblocks. Doug Schoninger, an investor from New York, started PRO Rugby in 2017. It collapsed after one season. In June, Schoninger, who estimates he spent $6 million of his money on the league, sued Chang and other members of U.S.A. Rugby, accusing them of stymying his efforts.
U.S.A. Rugby declined to discuss the accusations because the case is pending.
Meanwhile, a new seven-team league, Major League Rugby, just finished its first season. A salary cap has kept player costs in check but made it difficult for many players to focus solely on rugby. Players earn about $10,000 for a full season. Also, the game remains a mystery to most fans.
“Sometimes, I get asked, ‘What’s rugby?’ ” said Blake Rogers, who played for the Glendale Raptors in Colorado. “But it’s all about perception. Ten years ago, it was considered more ‘thugby.’ Now, we get more cultural respect.”
Sevens, the shorter, faster version of the game, is catching on. Each year, Las Vegas hosts one of the 10 stops on the world tour. After a fitful start, the weekend tournament now draws more than 30,000 fans per day.
The tension over whether to emphasize the youth game, the national team or the professional game has led to a schism within U.S.A. Rugby. It has also presented an opportunity to bring in new executives with different skills to professionalize an organization that was long dominated by former players whose love for the game sometimes clouded their business decisions.
“We’ve been amateur and need to become professional,” said Dan Lyle, a former star player who is now an analyst for NBC Sports. “The game is emerging in America, and that’s why all this turnover is happening, because people realize that you have to write a business plan.”
Still, he said, “you have to start off with the idea that you can’t all of a sudden create a bonfire overnight.”