The United States has landed in another World Cup.
Before you start celebrating or planning a trip, a few caveats:
It’s just over nine years.
And, uh, it’s the Rugby World Cup.
The sport about which most Americans have only vague knowledge—hey, isn’t it like football, without pads, helmets, or forward passes? – Will bring its biggest event in this country in 2031 (with a female version in 2033).
While the Rugby World Cup is only behind the Summer Olympics and Soccer’s World Cup in some corners of the planet, it certainly doesn’t have its place in the US.
Quick, who is the current world champion? Where will the next Rugby World Cup be played?
Even with nine years of prime time for the game to develop and interest growing, it’s hard to see how rugby turns out to be more than the tiniest ever in the American sports landscape.
But some people are ready to take on the challenge.
“Listen, we know there’s a lot of competition for consumer dollars in America,” said Amanda Windsor White, president of the Atlanta-based team Rugby ATL in the sport’s top American professional league. “We have to work a little harder from a marketing standpoint to create awareness and give potential fans a reason to come to see us.”
For those who haven’t noticed, Major League Rugby is a 13-team league that was launched in 2018. While the number of teams has nearly doubled during the league’s brief history, it has not yet generated much interest, mostly playing. Small stadium before sparse crowd.
But world rugby, the international governing body, is keen to expand its game beyond the traditional hotbeds of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, France and the South Pacific islands.
White and others at MLR hope to capitalize on that push. He believes that the physical nature of rugby is a natural for American sports enthusiasts, not social traditions such as tailgating and players from both teams getting together after matches to sip a few beers.
“We know there are people out there who like to be trendsetters,” White said. “Once they’re exposed to it, they’re going to love it.”
The last World Cup was played in a non-traditional country for the first time in 2019. Rising Power Japan hosted a tournament that ran into some major problems, from the proposed main stadium in Tokyo not being completed on time until the unprecedented cancellation of three matches due to a thunderstorm.
But the experiment was generally considered a success, with the average crowd exceeding 37,000 and hosts Japan losing to eventual champions South Africa before reaching the quarter-finals.
(Note: This is an answer to our earlier question. Also, the next World Cup will be played in France in 2023.)
Japan is the country that is generally held up as the model that world rugby hopes to emulate with its national team in the United States, known as the Eagles.
Japan’s victory over three-time World Cup champions South Africa in the 2015 tournament is generally regarded as the biggest upset in rugby history.
In the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup, Japan received significant coaching expertise from the world governing body and more opportunities to play top nations in Test matches.
That formula will now be tried out in the US in hopes of using the next nine years to build the Eagles into a team that could possibly qualify for the quarterfinals by 2031.
“We have to build on our talent now,” White said. “We want to show on a global stage that USA Rugby can compete with the best.”
The Eagles are certainly far from that standard at the moment.
While the US has played in every World Cup except one since the inaugural tournament in 1987, it has never come close to being eliminated from group play, winning just three out of 25 matches, going 892–350.
His 2019 performance was distinctive: four consecutive losses to England (45-7), France (33-9), Argentina (47-17) and Tonga (31-19) and finishing last in Pool C.
Any attempt to turn America into the next Japan will run into some significant hurdles.
Most notably, the country has many team sports – football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and football – with significant following in the country, attracting top level athletes to rugby and being heard above the noise. becomes more difficult.
And unlike football’s World Cup, which will largely headline itself in the summer of 2026, when the United States hosts along with Mexico and Canada, rugby’s biggest events usually take place in September and October.
That deadline conflicts with, of course, the busiest part of the sporting calendar in America.
The NFL and college football are in the early part of their seasons, while Major League Baseball is kicking off its regular season and heading to the World Series. Major League Soccer may be in the middle of its post season and, oh yes, the NBA and NHL begin their seasons in October.
Which begs the question: what if they organize the Rugby World Cup and nobody in the host country pays attention?
Another potential problem: While football has its own choice of major venues in the World Cup in 2026, the facilities used for rugby – typically, NFL and MLS stadiums – are being used by their primary tenants in September and October. Huh.
This could force US-based tournaments to be moved from fall to late summer, which would be a better fit within the US sporting calendar. Then again, it will be a brutal time to hold the games, the oppressive heat will undoubtedly affect the quality of the games.
Of course, Americans love major events – even big events that they know very little about. Twenty-four cities, including almost all currently in the race to host World Cup football games in 2026, have expressed interest in participating in the rugby equivalent.
Given the country’s financial strength and organizational prowess, the 2031 Rugby World Cup is likely to be a success.
Whether this has a significant impact before – or after – the actual tournament is far from a sure bet.