Reflections on the Growing Popularity of Rugby
Paul Presinzano, the business advisor to Kutztown’s rugby team, contributed to this post.
I’ve been associated with the game of rugby since 1968. The rugby community has long been waiting for a prominent sponsor to back this sport. Penn Mutual’s timing couldn’t have been better, as its sponsorship of The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship comes at a critical moment in the history of the game here in the United States. Interest in rugby is exploding, and the attention is well-deserved.
Having rugby represented in the 2016 Olympic Games for the first time since 1924 has given the sport tremendous credibility across the country and it’s gained a lot of attention because of that. But another reason behind the growing interest in rugby is the new emphasis on Rugby Sevens – with seven-player squads – over the more traditional and larger Rugby Fifteens.
Many people see Sevens as the future of the game. It’s a fast-flowing game. It’s easy for Americans — who do not have a rugby background — to understand. It fits well into the TV world: A game lasts only 14 minutes, and then two brand new teams trot out onto the field for another game, with lots of time for commercials. This gives NBC Sports tremendous versatility in marketing and promoting the tournaments.
The athletic schedule is another factor. Kutztown University of Pennsylvania started its own Rugby Sevens program in 2010. We play Sevens exclusively in the Spring, and a lot of other teams are starting to go that way. While it looks very simple, Rugby Sevens is a very technical game. Playing Sevens in the Spring is a way for us to also sharpen the skills of our players in passing, decision making and fitness, all which help improve our performance in Rugby Fifteens in the Fall, which is the traditional rugby season.
The American Collegiate Rugby Championship (ACRC) has enlisted a large number of schools, from 11 different conferences, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, to buy into the concept of playing Sevens exclusively in the Spring. That has had a lot to do with the dramatic increase in the competition level. At Kutztown, for example, since 2010, our record’s 134/14/1, but that’s because we concentrate so much time into Sevens. I see that happening across the board, so the competition is getting stiffer and stiffer each year.
All this has led to getting the American public excited about Rugby Sevens. Living here in the Philadelphia area, everyone I talk to has been to the event or has seen it on television. They accepted it right away, and it’s generating all of this interest and excitement, and our crowds just get bigger and bigger every year. It’s not only the students, athletes, coaches and universities that are promoting rugby, but I see a huge wave of popularity as a spectator sport.
More attention brings better athletes to the sport, which drives more attention. Being on TV is a tremendous boon. Any athlete would love to be on a national platform, so it’s pushing every one of these athletes to try harder too. It’s not just coming to practice, but it involves going to fitness training, weight lifting, speed training, watching films, etc. Teams across the country are doing more than just going to a practice two days a week.
Remember, most of these athletes are playing this sport are at a club level, not at a varsity level. At first glance, that doesn’t make much difference. The athletes that play at the club level at Dartmouth, Penn State, or Kutztown, they’re equivalent to any varsity athlete of any other sport. They train just as hard. Most of the high school players we recruit have been playing rugby for four to six years. The international students have been playing for most of their lives. These are very, very serious athletes.
But, take a deeper look at it and the club model makes a big difference. Unlike varsity teams, the responsibility of running the club falls squarely on the shoulders of the students. Our student athletes are the presidents, vice presidents, treasurers, and secretaries of their own club, and they run the destiny of the club. They manage the business aspect of the rugby team. They pay the bills. They set up the appointments for tournaments. As coach, I schedule games, coach the team and run film sessions.
Every sport teaches a life lesson, including rugby. However, this is a unique situation where rugby players are in charge of the management of their own organization.
I hope you will join us for The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship on May 30th and 31st, either in person or by watching on TV, to see the excitement for yourself. Root for us, or root for another favorite team, but know that you are getting in on the beginnings of something special.