Rugby is a global game. Nations from all over the world descended on Rugby World Cup 2015 and the HSBC World Rugby 7s series, with new countries making breakthroughs on a consistent basis.
And now, the game in the United States has taken a further step forward with the advent of the first professional league in the country’s history.
The PRO (Professional Rugby Organization) League currently has five teams in North America, and is officially sanctioned by USA Rugby and World Rugby. The competition is played in a league format, with each team playing each other home and away.
So how has the league been received across the pond? Brad Kilpatrick, Head of Rugby at World Rugby Shop, says all is good. “Overall (it’s been) very positive. The on field product has been much better than expected and crowd attendance stands at an average of ~2,500 per game which puts the fledgling league on par with other established niche sports like Major League Lacrosse. General feeling in the community is it is a positive first step.”
The battle for many new sports in the US has always been battling the traditional powerhouses. Where Soccer has always found itself being compared to American Football and Basketball, so to rugby has its competitors in the niche market.
Rewind back to 2014 and the potential for rugby in the US was there for all to see when Soldier Field, Chicago was sold out to see the Eagles take on New Zealand. So how long has the new league been in the pipeline? “To my knowledge only a couple of years”
Kilpatrick continued. “Doug (Schoninger, CEO PRO Rugby) is brand new to the sport and the major impetus for his decision to start the league seems to be that USA vs All Blacks match”.
So how far does the league have to go until it can be said that it has been truly embraced by the American public? It could be a while yet according to Kilpatrick. “It is still a very, very niche sport in the US (there are 4x the number of lacrosse players as an example), but there is no doubt it is growing. The sport has recently been given official sanctioning by the state of Massachusetts which is a very significant step.
So what is holding the sport back? Fans have turned out to watched a major game, the USA Sevens team have won events and have a household name in Carlin Isles. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, surely if you build it, they will come?
“After a very strong period of growth 4-5 years ago, the sport’s growth has been solid if unspectacular. Much of that had to do with markets/states that had traditionally been driving the growth slowing down and other states not quite at the critical mass necessary to begin rapid growth. But good foundations are being laid for another round of significant growth in the future.”
What’s next for the league? Is five teams likely to increase in the future? Kilpatrick says there is clear area for development. “
I believe next steps for the league are to expand onto the east coast of the US in at least one of the major cities (New York, Boston, Philadelphia). Adding one to two Canadian teams is also on the agenda.”
Kilpatrick played a big role in negotiating with PRO to make the deal to supply the competition with Gilbert balls. Was it an easy deal to make? “Through our relationship with USA Rugby we met Doug at RWC 2015. We kept conversations going about how we could help the league to kick things off and Doug was happy to have a partner that could take care of a lot of their equipment needs and provide advice on the commercial side generally. When the time came to figure out a league ball and partnership we were able to get straight in front with Gilbert on that basis.
Find out more about PRO by visiting their website: http://www.prorugby.org/
In addition to the PRO Rugby relationship, Gilbert are also delighted to be a longstanding partner of USA Rugby, exclusively supplying balls and equipment alongside being the Official ball of the Americas Rugby Championship which debut earlier this year.