As frequent readers are well aware, I’ve written a number of pieces on the sport of Rugby and how its challenges to develop in the U.S. are similar to that of Team Handball. Both are sports with similarities with sports Americans already excel at and follow passionately (basketball for Team Handball; American Football for Rugby). And both sports are very popular in parts of the world (Scandinavia, the Balkans and Germany for Team Handball; the British Commonwealth for Rugby) but are minor sports in the U.S. And finally, both sports have passionate followers in the U.S., who dream that one day their sport will crack into the big time and become part of the American sports landscape.
I live in Las Vegas, a town full of dreamers, and a couple weekends ago I saw and heard firsthand how Rugby is maybe, just maybe, turning that dream into a reality. It was the second year that the USA 7s tournament was held in Las Vegas as part of the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) World Series for Rugby 7s. A crowd of around 25,000 attended each day of the 2 day event held at Sam Boyd stadium on the outskirts of Vegas. This may not seem like much of a crowd, but I can attest that it’s more than the UNLV football team often draws and without doubt you’ll be hard pressed to see spectators anywhere having more fun. The event has a party time atmosphere with expats from many nations dressed up in costumes or their nation’s colors. Outside the stadium is a festival area with rugby drills for the kids, assorted booths with national food dishes. And as it’s an all day event, let’s just say that if fans start drinking beer before noon most of them are going to be in a good mood come nightfall.
But aside from the festive mood onsite an even more important indication of Rugby’s growth was the presence of NBC sports at the event. In all, 5 hours of coverage (much of it live) was broadcast over the airwaves to every corner of the United States and 17 hours of coverage was available to much of the nation via the NBC Universal Sports online platform. I’m not an expert on TV broadcasting, but based on the equipment, numbers of trailers and personnel running around NBC didn’t cut any corners on their production. TV coverage like this alone, isn’t going to turn the U.S. into a Rugby power overnight, but there’s no denying that nationwide exposure like this is a godsend to a niche sport.
Here are a couple of audio excerpts from NBC’s broadcast. It doesn’t take much to imagine a Team Handball broadcast and the same type of Olympic advertisement for our sport.
From time to time I’ve gotten into verbal and written forum spats with members of the U.S. Team Handball community that pooh-pooh the importance of TV exposure. The standard argument is that it’s a diversion of scarce resources (time and money) that would be better spent on grass roots development. My counter argument is that it’s a numbers game and we sorely need new fans and players to support our grass roots programs and TV is the best way to grow those numbers. Heck, you might even find a real gem of a player who takes a liking to a game he’s never seen before. Last summer during the USA National Team – LA match in Chicago I whimsically made such a point on the Comcast broadcast. Essentially issuing a challenge to anyone watching that if they think they can play this game better contact the U.S. Federation for a tryout. For those of you who like to pooh-pooh the possibility of finding such a player, I suggest you check out this audio interview of Miles Craigwell, a former NFL player who saw a broadcast last year of Rugby 7’s, got in touch with the USA Rugby Federation and 8 months later started several matches for the U.S in Vegas.
I’ll be the first to tell you that Rugby 7s is a much simpler game to learn than Team Handball, but we could still use a few more Miles Craigwells showing some interest in our sport. And as I’ve argued many times before, we still need to have the grassroots programs in place. Because, if you do your promotion well, you need to be ready to handle all those newcomers.
But, are we doing our promotion of Team Handball as well as we could? As I soaked in the enormity of this event for Rugby, I couldn’t help but contemplate “how is Rugby doing this?” and “why can’t something similar be done for Team Handball?” In part 2 of this series I’ll tackle that very question.
Universal Sports (3 Feb 2011): Craigwell a football player turned rugby star: http://www.universalsports.com/blogs/blog=thescrum/postid=514632.html
The Economist (3 Feb 2011) Rugby in America: Worth a try: More and more Americans are being converted to the sport: http://www.economist.com/node/18070557?story_id=18070557&fsrc=rss