New York Rugby’s Will Tucker gets tackled in the second half against the Seattle Seawolves during the Major League Rugby Championship at Red Bull Arena on June 25 in Harrison, New Jerseygetty images
With everyone talking about sports betting, crypto crashes, NFTs, fantasy sports leagues, Zoom fatigue and all things digital, we wanted to bring readers back to an exciting development that is just starting to make its way into traditional sports.
You remember those old-fashioned on-field collisions between human beings, right? Before avatars wearing colorful skins decided everything?
We’ve written “what to watch out for” columns before (remember our misguided endorsement of American football in India?). Fortunately, most of our futuristic stuff was accurate, including the rise of eSports, the growing NHL, and, wait for it… Formula 1.
This column is a little different, however, as we’re talking about a sport way down the list in North America, and one best classified as nothing more than niche a decade ago.
What “code” are we talking about? I’m glad you asked. This is rugby.
Or more specifically rugby union, the game “played in the sky” (at least according to our Commonwealth friends).
This is true. The game invented in the school of rugby in England and more recently perfected by countries (in different styles) such as South Africa, France, New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The game, which Peter Kenneth Nduati noted on Quora, can be played by anyone, as it has “positions for short and stout, tall and skinny, heavy, strong, agile, jumping, fast.” Furthermore, “the whole team defends and attacks, [plus] anyone can score.”
Like soccer, which benefited from the US hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North America in 1994 (and soon in 2026), World Rugby – the international federation responsible for the sport globally – wants America to get better at the game. So it announced in May that the men’s World Cup would be held in the US in 2031, with the women’s World Cup to follow just two years later.
This strategic decision by World Rugby (a board that plans to make a significant investment in the US rugby ecosystem) should elevate the game more than many would expect, while providing a much-needed boost to Major League Rugby’s 13-team, two-country competition based in Dallas.
First, unlike its cousin NFL football, rugby has a vibrant and evolving women’s game, with this version leading to global formalization, growth and expansion. Add to that Rugby Sevens, the smaller-player (but faster, more wide-open) version of the game that enjoyed considerable success in its early days as an Olympic sport.
Second, like its NFL cousin, North Americans seem to like rugby a lot. This version of soccer features hard hitting (but controlled/limited) contact, is full of passing, kicking and genetically gifted athletes, and is so team focused that some days the game is more like a twin than a cousin.
Third, given America’s late adoption of the game, the US is not a global giant, which means that achievement will not come easily, and whatever the US eventually “wins” will be earned, not given. In a counterintuitive way, this reality may lead a new generation of North Americans to view the game as youthful or contemporary rather than traditional/old as they increasingly see baseball.
Perhaps best of all (and a deliberate rehash of point #2 above), the growth of the Women’s XV (15 players on a starting roster) creates another women’s team sport and effectively provides high schools and colleges with improved opportunities to balance funding, which historically it was placed behind the men on a gridiron.
Translation: Rugby presents a huge opportunity for Title IX advocates to support women in all sports, but especially soccer.
It is also an opportunity for the IOC/Olympics to expand beyond the Sevens and bring rugby to the Brisbane 2032 Summer Games. Australians love rugby and the sport has featured four times in Olympic competition (1900, 1908, 1920, 1924) with gold medals , won by France, Australia (players from Australia and New Zealand) and twice by the United States.
Perhaps even more interesting to contemplate is how quickly technology will advance in the coming decade of rugby. Building an American professional league from the ground up (riding a wave of nationalistic popularization) allowed rugby to use cutting-edge technology to shape its own success. Already in places like Australia, British company Sportable Technologies is experimenting with chips placed in game balls. This data will give rugby fans countless stats to ponder and bet on.
By the time we get to 2031 and 2033, the analytics capacity to measure performance should be mind-blowing…just as we enter 6G streaming, virtual reality proximity, holographic enhancements, and artificial intelligence (all in the early stages of development).
To all of the above, we say that North American sports practitioners need to join the fray and take sides while real estate in the rugby ecosystem is available.
Rick Burton is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly is dean of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Maine. Their latest book, “Business the NHL Way: Lessons from the Fastest Game on Ice,” will be published by the University of Toronto Press in early October.