The New Zealand Rugby Team performs a Haka before a match with Argentina at the 2011 Rugby World Cup. [Image: Jeanfrancois Beausejour / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)]

US – New Zealand Exhibition Match at FedEx® Field Boosts Hope for USA Rugby’s Future

The Pacific

On October 23rd, the United States and New Zealand men's rugby teams played an exhibition match at FedEx® Field, the stadium of the Washington Football Team. This was the first meeting of these two teams since November 2016. The matchup was dubbed the “1874 Cup”, in honor of the year the first rugby match was played on American soil. Approximately 40,000 fans watched the New Zealand “All Blacks” thrash the US “Eagles” 104-14. New Zealand expatriates living around the United States traveled to watch the game. The outcome was unsurprising as the All Blacks are ranked 2nd in the world and have won more rugby World Cups (three) than any other team.

The exhibition match coincided with USA Rugby’s bid to host the men’s 2027 and 2031 Rugby World Cups and the women’s 2029 Rugby World Cup. In the 1920 Olympics, the United States won the gold medal in rugby, but the sport has since struggled to gain domestic popularity. It is still a niche sport in the United States, lagging far behind football, baseball, basketball, and soccer in players and viewers. Men’s rugby is not an NCAA sport, and with the exception of some Division III and smaller Division I schools, women’s rugby is designated as a club sport, which limits its funding and profile on campus. Despite this, USA Rugby executives are hoping high-profile matchups and hosting the Rugby World Cup will raise the sport’s domestic profile.

In 2018, the first professional rugby league in the United States, Major League Rugby (MLR) was launched. The league has grown to include 13 teams—12 of which are based in the United States and one in Canada. MLR players and coaches come from the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and beyond. The 1994 World Cup led to an explosion in the popularity of soccer in the United States, boosting the viewership and financial viability of Major League Soccer in the United States. MLR Commissioner George Killebrew believes that hosting the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup will lead to a similar explosion in popularity and growth in the domestic market.

At the grassroots level, rugby is steadily growing in popularity. Rugby is hugely popular in Pacific Islander and Commonwealth diaspora communities. A 2019 study found that the United States has the largest market of rugby fans in the world, at over 45 million. USA Rugby has over 100,000 members and governs over 900 college teams. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are leading the push to expand rugby at the collegiate level.

The 1874 Cup exhibition match between the All Blacks and the Eagles marks a new chapter for the US – New Zealand rugby relationship. New Zealand Rugby CEO Mark Robinson wants to see the teams meet more regularly as he believes it will have a tangible impact on rugby’s growth in the United States. Sports are a powerful medium of public diplomacy, and the presence of prominent players and coaches from New Zealand demonstrate the people-to-people connections rugby creates between the two countries.

Lily Schlieman is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a Master's Student at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa in Pacific Island Studies and Ocean Policy.