We already have 11 pro teams in the big five sports leagues, and even added women’s pro hockey this past weekend. Then there are 14 minor league baseball franchises and at least two minor league hockey teams in the area as well. So is professional rugby next?
According to a story by Ben Fischer in this week’s SportsBusiness Journal, a White Plains company, United World Sports, is pushing forward with plans for the “Super Sevens,” a fast-paced, seven on seven version of rugby that is similar to what will be in the Rio Olympics and is thriving on college campuses, with MLS stadiums, including Red Bull Arena, being targeted as home field for as soon as the late spring of 2017.
In the article, the group is looking to raise $40 million for the launch, and would have American players participating in an hour long, four quarter version of the traditional game, similar to what 20/20 cricket has done in places like India and even what the Arena Football League or Major Indoor Soccer has done with a version of traditional sports to varying degrees of success. It is unclear if The “Super Sevens,” which would have franchises both east and west in two divisions according to the story, would be a single entity like the way MLS started, or if they would seek franchise owners to start. The idea is also not without others truing the same thing, according to the story, but other attempts appear to be for the slower, more traditional version of 15’s rugby, which would also need international sanctioning to secure players.
“Everyone is trying to find out, how do you monetize this space? How do you do this? No one knows, and I think we found the formula with super sevens,” said Jon Prusmack, a former defense contracting CEO whose company owns the rights to the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship and the USA Sevens tournament, the two most successful annual rugby events in the United States, the article added.
While officials from Red Bull Arena were not quoted in the story, the team has been looking for additional events outside of soccer, and rugby would seem to be a good fit. The sport has grown considerably in the New York area from a high school and college standpoint, with two alumni of New York’s Xavier High School, Mike Petri and Seamus Kelly, both part of the USA Eagles team that just completed play at the ongoing Rugby World Cup in the United Kingdom.
One of the teams interest according to the story is the San Jose Earthquakes. “We’re on board as a venue,” said Earthquakes President Dave Kaval, whose Avaya Stadium hosted a Pacific Nations Cup rugby event in July, the story did say.
Rugby participation has grown 77 percent in the U.S. from 2009 to 2014, with up to 1.28 million people who played at least once during the year, according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association. NBC has taken a great interest in the sport, televising matches from Soldier Field in Chicago as well as the sevens events that United World Sports runs already. They will be showing a good amount of Rugby Sevens this coming summer as well, as both the men’s and women’s U.S. teams have not only qualified, but have played very well on the international stage; something which the U.S. men’s team has not done that well on the 15’s side.
The article did not indicate if NBC would be on board as a broadcast partner, although the relationship that already exists, as well as the time that matches could be played and the season (stories have mentioned a season running from late spring to mid-summer, outside of a college and professional football window). All of those details, it is assumed, would be worked out if this New York-based group can raise the money for launch in a short window.
Whether the area is ready for a rugby professional league remains to be seen. Officials point to rugby being at a position now where soccer was 20 years ago, and that is how MLS came to be. However others will look at the lack of success of MISL, Women’s Professional Soccer, the AFL and others as proof that the professional franchise business is overly saturated and rugby is still too niche a sport for a professional league to exist. This group does have several things going for it including a potential TV partner, the Olympic halo and the speed of the version of the game they are proposing, which would be appealing to a younger audience conceivably.
Will it work? We will watch and see.