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Can rugby finally crack the US by bringing the World Cup there in 2031?

The Americans plan to use NFL stadiums and sell more than 3 million tickets.

Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time ever at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time ever at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland

RUGBY HAS BEEN obsessed with cracking the US market for a long time but there had been very little in the way of heavy-duty concrete action until now. 

In a major step for the sport, World Rugby confirmed yesterday that the USA will host the Men’s Rugby World Cup in 2031 and then the Women’s World Cup two years later. 

With the next two men’s World Cups taking place in France next year and then Australia in 2027, the game’s governing body hopes to see long-established networks of rugby-loving fans flocking to games.

Bringing the World Cup to America thereafter certainly feels riskier, but World Rugby is confident that 2031 can be a record-breaking success.

“We looked at the US opportunity the same way as we did with Japan for the 2019 World Cup,” said World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin.

“First of all, a great place to deliver outstanding tournaments and have those really big moments that get players and fans excited. That’s the starting point.

“There’s no doubt that when we look at the opportunity to grow the game around the world, the two biggest growth opportunities are the US, the most addressable opportunity for us as a sport, and the women’s game. 

“When you start putting those things together, it genuinely is a bit of a no-brainer.”

The big question is whether Americans are going to flock to the games in 2031.

ronan-kelleher-scores-a-try Rónan Kelleher scores against the US last year. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

USA Rugby CEO, Ross Young, yesterday confirmed that there have been discussions with the NFL about using some of their stadiums around the US for the World Cup.

That may mean moving the World Cup window – usually September and October – to July and August in order to ensure those stadiums are available, but Young outlined huge ambitions for the US to sell more than 3 million tickets for the games in 2031. By way of comparison, just over 2.5 million tickets were made available for next year in France.

“We’ve got 28 venues of over 60,000 with cities across the country, some over 100,000,” said Young, outlining that USA Rugby wants this to be a “mega-event.”

It all sounds great but the reality is that there simply isn’t that kind of appetite for rugby in the US right now. Nine years is a long time, though, according to Gilpin.

“It’s a massive challenge, for sure,” he said “We need to have smart partnerships, partnering with other dominant sports in the US and use the platforms they have to grow rugby.

“Reaching a younger audience is about having a game that’s exciting to watch, that’s understandable, that’s accessible – and we’ve got a big job to do, not just in the US, to make sure we’re doing that.”

“A couple of years out from Japan 2019, people were saying to us that we would never sell the tickets for the tournament. Every single game sold out. We’ve got a history of doing this. We can build that interest.

“Yes, there’s a lot of work to do in building awareness of the sport in the US but this is a market that gets big events. That’s what we’re going to talk to them about.”

rugby-2018-usa-mens-rugby-team-vs-scotland-mens-rugby-team USA fans celebrate the Eagles' win over Scotland in 2018. Source: Maria Lysaker

Another obvious concern is that USA Rugby has had some turbulent times in recent years, including filing for bankruptcy in 2020 during the pandemic.

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Currently ranked 18th in the world, the men’s US team is far from being a force in Test rugby and it’s clear that a strong host nation would help hugely in selling the 2031 World Cup.

Gilpin stressed that World Rugby’s ongoing discussions around the Nations Championship would help the US to improve, while Young agreed that the Major League Rugby club competition in North America will be a key part of any growth.

Gilpin said World Rugby will do its utmost to ensure the Eagles are in a better place coming towards 2031.

“The first thing we have to do is give some real certainty to the US teams around what the next few years look like and start to build the competitiveness of those teams.

“So significant investment in high performance, performance pathways, the community game, and bringing a lot of stakeholders with us – we can’t do it on our own.”

World Rugby plans to expand the World Cup from its current 20 teams up to 24 either for 2031 in the US or perhaps even at the tournament before in Australia in 2027.

“We’d love to see more nations playing, we’d love to see regional competitions having more relevance in qualifying teams,” said Gilpin. “That’s definitely an ambition for 2031.

“That’s not to say that we’ve ruled out any expansion for Australia in 2027 yet.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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