Global Rugby focusing on the United States

USA Rugby
The LA 2028 Olympics and multiple Rugby World Cups could bring widespread attention to women’s rugby in the United States.

Ariana Ramsey did not know much about rugby growing up. She was an athlete, running track, but never knew about rugby. Then, she heard about it in one of her classes in high school and eventually tried it out.

“I had no idea what it [rugby] was until that moment that I signed up for it,” Ramsey told The Sporting Tribune.

Ramsey quickly fell in love with the fun and dynamic sport, pursuing it instead of track. She attended Dartmouth College, played there, and is now a part of the USA Rugby Women’s Eagles.

As a member of USA Rugby, Ramsey wants to help others see her love for the sport. She believes the key to the growth of women’s rugby is getting eyes on the sport.

“Every person I’ve interacted with, they like it,” Ramsey said. “It’s something that they’re not used to yet. So the more people I can get to come out, to watch a game, just put it in front of them and be like, ‘what is this?’ And then it’s just a matter of getting it out there and in front of people, getting it on TVs, and stuff like that. Because if people knew about rugby, they’d be interested, like me.”

Ramsey’s desire for growth has already begun as women’s rugby is gaining interest globally. The 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand had 42.6k in attendance at Eden Park for the final, a record at the time, and an average audience of over 1.8m. Participation in the sport overall is also rising, increasing by 11% in 2023, with one-quarter of total participants being female. 

The growth of women’s rugby is happening simultaneously with the development of other women’s sports, such as soccer, where attendance and viewership numbers are rising. For example, the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand sold 1.5 million tickets in 2023. 

One place that World Rugby believes the sport can grow over the next decade is the United States. The LA 2028 Olympics and 2031 and 2033 World Cups in the United States offer a chance to do that. But even sooner, USA is playing at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, from March 1 to 3 as a part of the HSBC SVNS Series. The event is a chance for the sport to gain in the United States.

“I wish we had more United States games so that it could be bigger here,” Ramsey said.

Chief of women’s rugby Sally Horrox said the United States has an appetite for sports, making it a perfect spot for the growth of women’s rugby. Many fans enjoy it when their teams are winners, and the United States is ranked ninth globally, putting them in a position to compete during major tournaments.

A similar concept was seen in women’s soccer when Brandi Chastain scored a penalty kick to win the 1999 World Cup for the United States. The victory started a period of growth for women’s soccer, with the domestic league in the United States, the NWSL, averaging over 10,000 fans per match in 2023. Horrox wants rugby to grow similarly.

“LA 2028 could ignite women’s rugby,” Horrox said. “USA fans love winners. There’s something magic about the Olympic rings… If you look at what’s happened in the past with soccer, where you’ve seen your world champions, the Brandi Chastain moment, you’ve seen what that means to kids. Girls then want to play, and the media soaks it up. That could be quite a moment, a pivotal moment.”

Horrox also wants rugby stars to attract fans, similar to how the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and other top players brought attention to women’s soccer. She says rugby has been too shy in doing so previously and believes players like Ilona Maher, who has 436k followers on Instagram, can garner interest.  

“If we look at our priorities, one of them is building an iconic sport with superstar players,” Horrox said. “Rugby has been quite shy at doing that; it sells its team culture, which is a real strength of the game. But, we as the sport have progressed and modernized, and you look at the landscape we live in, the reality of the world we live in, we can’t be too modest about that.”

World Rugby is also working on expanding international and domestic competitions. They are considering their investment models and current competitions as they build the future of rugby in the United States. 

The SVNS Series is one way the women’s game is expanding, as 2024 is its first time in Los Angeles (for women’s rugby). The festival vibe of the tournament could attract fans as there is live music, food markets, and exciting game action.

“It is a festival vibe,” Horrox said. “It’s two or three days, in this case, three days in LA. So it’s live music. It’s entertainment is food. It’s high energy.”

The tournament begins on Friday. It is one stop for USA ahead of a decade of potential growth.