Rugby: The Next Major League Sport?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because rugby may fill the hole left in the NFL’s off-season.
By Libby Coleman
Love a good scrum? Look no further than this guy, Michael Clements. The founder of the National Rugby Football League intends to make the sport — big in the antipodes and a leading cause of cauliflower ear — a major league thing here in the United States. Improbable, yes. There already are five major leagues in the U.S., and for the past three decades, attempts to professionalize rugby have floundered because of insufficient financial support. Earlier this year, two planned exhibition matches, in New Orleans and Philadelphia, were canceled abruptly. But then again, Major League Soccer is a fairly recent invention too, and it also had a rocky start. Meanwhile, rugby’s profile has risen, thanks partly to the efforts of organizations like USA Rugby.
Clements, of course, is a longtime rugby player himself. And yes, the 62-year-old has a day job, running a legal-services firm based in Minneapolis. But rugby is clearly his passion. “When the fans, the players, the people and the investors see it, it will be on par with any other major league that’s out there,” he tells OZY. For now, he’s working on building six to 12 franchise teams over the next year, with the aim to have a series of games next summer that, he says, will rival a Patriots-Cowboys lineup. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
OZY: America already has football. Why does it need rugby?
Michael Clements: Because America loves more items on the menu. We’re consumers. We like things on the menu. And that’s what we’re doing — providing more on the menu. Football runs only a few months out of the year, and otherwise it’s not there. Those fans would like to have light fare on the menu, and rugby can provide that.
OZY: So let’s say you successfully build a National Rugby Football League. What does it look like?
M.C: Our season would be the summer months, April through July, with maybe a week in August. We’ll be playing in major venues in major centers of population. The NFL has 32 major venues in 32 major locations. It’s easy for us to travel on a path like that.
OZY: We’ve noticed that some former NFL players have taken up rugby.
M.C.: Well, there are more similarities between rugby and football than there are dissimilarities. You have to have a starting point, and what a perfect scenario when you have players from the NFL who are high-end athletes — they already have the hardware. What we have to do now is take the rugby software and put it in. People have to realize that any of these major league teams in the States can have only so many players on them, and even the teams themselves hate to see the guys go. If we can utilize them in another way, that’s terrific.
OZY: Many Americans watch rugby and cringe at the hard hits. Football and other sports have been criticized for being dangerous to the players. What can you tell us about the relative safety of rugby?
M.C.: You always have to have your eyes wide open on the safety. Within rugby, the laws are such that dangerous play is not tolerated. You use your head not to use your head. For example, by the laws you cannot tackle above the shoulders. If somebody has maybe taken a hit, it’s the duty of the team and the management to say “you’re out.” If you watch that and you’re vigilant about it, long-term and short-term injury can be mitigated.
OZY: By some accounts, rugby is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Where is the support coming from?
M.C.: Kids are picking it up at a younger age. It’s being introduced in high schools. It’s the No. 1 college club sport out there in the country. Its profile is rising everywhere, and that’s where you have to applaud what USA Rugby has done. Plus, as the technology increases, global sports become more and more attractive. And then, of course, we have to stand up for ourselves, for becoming the attraction more and more now. We have to stand up for our own contribution, the awareness that we’ve brought through the professional side. By working together, everybody benefits.