In a country dominated by baseball, basketball, football and hockey, other sports often have a tough time jostling for attention and popularity. However, history has shown that when the United States gets to host prestigious international sporting competitions, interest spikes and those sports tend to leave a lasting impression.
The legacy of rugby in the United States
Rugby football has featured in the United States dating way back to the early 19th century, when the game was played between universities and college teams, similar to Britain where the sport had originated. Indeed, these games led to the development of American football, which evolved as a professional sport from its amateur rugby roots.
Interestingly, just as American football was the professional offshoot of rugby in the United States, rugby itself underwent a schism in England. Although purists there believed the sport should remain amateur, workers in the north of England insisted that rugby should become professional. This led to rugby league being founded in 1895, while rugby union remained as the amateur code.
How rugby league can grow in America
The traditional heartland of rugby league is northern England, although there are now teams from Canada and France participating in their elite Super League. Meanwhile, the National Rugby League is absolutely massive in Australia, where the Sydney Roosters have won back-to-back championships, making them strongly tipped for a third consecutive title in the NRL odds on bet365.
Meanwhile, the USA Hawks national team have competed well on the international stage, although domestic championships have struggled to gain traction. The American National Rugby League (AMNRL) launched as a semi-professional competition in 1998, although it eventually folded. USA Rugby League was launched in 2011 as a new domestic competition and is growing steadily.
However, with teams located mostly along the east coast and now playing as amateurs, the sport could do with more investment and support throughout the country. Likewise, affiliations with successful teams would also help, particularly from those in England and Australia. Some do exist, although they’re fairly limited at present. Undoubtedly, they too could benefit from stronger ties with American teams, with the United States potentially a great source of future talent.
Learning the lessons from soccer
Despite relative success for the USMNT over the years, who reached the semi-finals at the very first World Cup in 1930, it took a very long time for the popularity of soccer to grow in the United States. While the original North American Soccer League peaked during the 1970s and early 1980s, this was largely due to the participation of legendary players from around the world. These included icons like Pele, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best.
The NASL would eventually decline and fold, and while the influx of foreign stars helped to fill stadiums, it did little to help the development of homegrown players. Nevertheless, when the United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, a renewed passion for soccer emerged throughout the country. Major League Soccer was founded and has become hugely popular, while the women’s game has also blossomed, with the USWNT becoming the most successful side in the world.
World Cup presence can spark new interest
Could rugby league eventually become as popular as soccer? That seems unlikely, and while the USA team missed out on competing at the 2021 Rugby League World Cup in England, the quality of their performances has been impressive overall. This would suggest there are plenty of reasons to be positive in the years to come, especially given that the United States and Canada are going to co-host the 2025 Rugby League World Cup.
The 2025 Rugby League World Cup looks to be heading Stateside.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) November 20, 2016
Scheduled to be held at some of the best venues around the country, hopefully, this will give rugby league the attention it deserves. Packed stadiums and plenty of TV coverage on major networks will certainly help, because the pace and power of rugby league can certainly appeal to an American audience, should it get the right level of exposure.
If there’s one thing the soccer World Cup of 1994 demonstrated, it’s that worldwide attention can provide the right spark to reignite interest in certain sports throughout the United States. That can only be positive for the growth of the sport here, along with the development of players who could be future stars of the rugby league in hotbeds of the game such as England and Australia, if not in their own country.