In the U.S.A. (U.S.), sports represent a very unique commodity – a hobby, a profession, a life calling. The challenge is figuring out how certain sports can break through and thrive in such an over saturated market, competing with national giants like football, basketball and baseball. In this regard, media serves an essential function in fueling the development of new sports and building up a solid fan base. Despite the perceived success of a sport, media exposure can determine its survival or demise. Ultimately, media is the primary vehicle bringing sports to fans and athletes all over the world.
The sport of rugby union (rugby) has deep historical roots, having started in England in 1823 and subsequently was brought over to the U.S. around the late 1870s. In the first few years of the 20th century, the rules of rugby were modified into the game of American football. Rugby, in its original form, continued to be practiced and played at the college and senior level around the country. From 1900 to 1924, rugby boasted the title of being an Olympic sport four times, with the U.S. team taking gold in 1924. Due to aggressive fans and country tensions, the International Olympic Committee deemed rugby unfit to continue in the Olympic Games. Since then, rugby has developed independently around the world and has enjoyed much success in certain countries, such as New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and France. In the meantime, rugby virtually disappeared from the public eye and lost all major support in the U.S.
According to general media economic trends, the value of a product, in this case a sport, comes from the perceived value it holds. For the most part, rugby was associated with English culture and a violent fan-base. This reputation and the late onset and few broadcasts of rugby in the U.S., including it’s exclusion from the Olympics for almost a century, have made it hard for people in the U.S. to get to know the sport and follow it. Over the past forty years, organizations like USA Rugby and many grassroots groups dedicated to rugby have been working to convince U.S. athletes and fans to warm up to this “foreign” sport and to recognize it’s potential as a superior spectacle.
The pace of growth of the rugby fan base in the U.S. is partially due to the slow-adaptation and hesitance of major networks to broadcast and provide visibility to the sport. A few media corporations have recognized the need to showcase the sport on TV, namely NBC Sports, which has taken a key position in covering rugby in the U.S. But the fact that 2011 was the first time when rugby was broadcast live on network television demonstrates how far behind the U.S. is in regards to rugby spectator development. Nevertheless, the past five years have involved an unprecedented amount in rugby coverage according to U.S. standards. Unless the major networks become fully convinced with the profitability of rugby on TV, it will remain a niche sport in the U.S. and will be unable to reach mainstream status.
Looking to the future, rugby is set to undergo some significant changes at the local, national and international level. In 2009, rugby was once again voted back into the Olympics and it will make its re-debut at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In this scenario, rugby will most likely receive more acceptance and legitimacy due to its recent inclusion in the biggest global media spectacle in the world. With media at the forefront in promoting and publicizing the sport, it will be interesting to see how the U.S. reacts and receives rugby.
For my thesis, I’m looking at how the change in rugby TV coverage in the U.S. and the adoption of the played sport informs the state of rugby as sport-spectacle in this country. By evaluating the level of access of rugby TV coverage in the U.S. and the adoption of the played sport in the recent past, I aim to make correlations with the data gathered on rugby TV broadcasts in the U.S. The importance of this research lies in the fact that TV coverage is essential in embedding rugby into the U.S. sports culture since TV coverage is one of the main methods for stimulating growth and expansion of a sport and gaining new fans and athletes. In order to satisfy this relationship, rugby must sell itself as the ultimate spectator sport.