Rugby is one of the most popular sports around the world, beloved by fans across Europe and Australia. Leagues in France, as well as New Zealand, have large fan followings that result in a passion for the game that is unmatched elsewhere.
The game is played with an intriguing 15 players on both teams and includes many of the big hits and action-packed sequences that are familiar to professional football. Despite its global profile, however, the game has never garnered much attraction in North America.
Rugby ATL kicked off its inaugural season in the early months of 2020, joining an expanding group of teams that makes up Major League Rugby.
With the massive explosion of Atlanta United, it is no surprise that CEO and president Robert Taylor believes the team will grow quickly.
“When people look at us, we want them to see an organization that is doing the right things right,” Taylor told US Rugby News. “Over the next five years, we realize we have a lot of work to do, but it’s all positive.”
As for any startup, the question of sustainability will be lingering throughout the minds of both fans and executives. After all, it took Major League Soccer years to become profitable with some teams failing entirely.
Making the task even more difficult is the fact that most Americans are not familiar with the general rules of rugby, as it is rarely televised nationally. Additionally, unlike soccer, most kids do not grow up around the sport, and few schools offer it as a primary sport.
All of these obstacles will have to be faced head-on, and league commissioner Dean Howes thinks the league has what it takes to survive.
“Everyone involved, from our team operators to our players, fans and media partners, [has the] ultimate goal [of seeing] North American rugby thrive,” Howes said. “Rugby means business here, and MLR is right at the forefront.”
Although Rugby ATL has started off its first season of existence with a pair of wins, perhaps the most challenging obstacle they will face is fan engagement.
In their home opener on Feb. 9, they seemed to have no problem with getting fans in seats as the team reported over 2,500 attendees at the game. This could lead be great news for the club as they are now beginning to sell season tickets.
With a city that has shown its willingness to embrace new ideas and fans that crave action-packed sports, the MLR and Rugby ATL have many tools required to succeed. However, if previous iterations of failed professional sports leagues have taught us anything, it is that the only way for a league to grow is to promote marketability and secure television contracts.
What is clear is that rugby does have a market; what is not is whether that market can be shifted to a city like Atlanta. Only time can tell, but a passionate first few matches, as well as a leadership team that is in touch with the community, can give rugby its best shot at success in the South.