Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018: Fifa shadow looms large as San Francisco showpiece hunts United States fan base
Scene set for a huge weekend of sevens at home of San Francisco Giants, and the game has never had a better chance to make its presence felt in America
To the millions of American sports fans seething about their team’s absence from Russia 2018, I have good news.
The Rugby World Cup Sevens is here to sooth your anger and restore your pride in your great nation.
Not doing it for you? Well it should be, at least for 30 million of you.
That’s according to World Rugby, who say there are 30 million rugby fans in the US, a number matched only in China.
It is when the powers that be trot out the line that a fan is someone who is “interested or very interested” in rugby that the figure starts to make more sense.
Not exactly a precise measurement, but one that puts pressure on World Rugby as it takes one of its major events to the United States for the first time next weekend.
While the shadow of a Fifa World Cup that could not have gone much better looms large enough, rugby’s governing body is also aware that the time is now to make its mark in the US.
As things in China stall while World Rugby tries to overcome changes in Chinese sports governance and get the ball rolling on Alisports’ US$100 million investment into developing the game there, a successful World Cup is a must.
And it’s not only the powers that be who are relying on a home run, with USA Rugby desperate to put the sport on the map once and for all.
While it wants to attract more funding for a programme operating under tight budget constraints, it is also determined to promote rugby as a worthy alternative to American football and basketball for athletes who don’t quite make the grade.
Emerging markets are all the rage for World Rugby and they are using the 15s and sevens World Cups to take the sport to countries outside their traditional sphere.
The last World Cup Sevens was in Russia and next year’s 15s showpiece is in Japan, but it doesn’t take a mug to work out that the US is one of the biggest fish of them all.
There is no doubt that sevens is on the move – World Rugby says Olympic inclusion attracted around 30 million fans globally – but the US sports market is a saturated one and new fans need something of substance.
If in fact there are 30 million people at least “interested” in rugby in the US, next weekend’s World Cup should be a hit and a portion of that figure might take the next step to becoming genuine fans.
That there are still tickets available to the three-day tournament at AT&T Park – the home of the San Francisco Giants – perhaps suggests otherwise. The fact the cheapest available ticket costs US$100 may have something to do with that.
To World Rugby’s credit – I think? – they couldn’t have done much more to Americanise the tournament.
Holding it in a baseball stadium could prove a masterstroke and the new format falls in line with the direction of many US sports which are geared towards shorter attention spans.
Let 24 teams compete in the men’s competition, but sweep the worst eight of them under the rug quick smart with a new pre-round of 16 rather than pool play, ensuring every match is a knockout.
That should keep the fans happy. Whether it alienates lesser teams like Hong Kong – who will likely find themselves in the Bowl with similar teams to those who competed in the World Series qualifier here in April – remains to be seen.
NBC are on board with over 30 hours of live coverage after achieving higher-than-expected ratings for sevens’ Olympic debut in Rio and the US team have certainly done their bit to promote the tournament.
While sevens can’t offer constant visibility like the NFL, the NBA or the MLB in that it is in town one weekend, gone the next and operating in a completely different time zone the following month, it has that Olympic edge which counts for so much in America.
Can World Rugby make it stick, or is sevens destined to be the hit and giggle that draws a crowd once a year and then disappears off into the sunset without leaving a genuine legacy, a fun sport but one that fails to win over dyed-in-the-wool American sports fans?
A betting man would suggest the latter, but best we hold our judgment for a week and see if little old sevens can step out of Fifa’s shadow and make its presence felt.