With rugby getting more and more popular, how long before we see serious investors start to take note and get interested in buying a team? You may laugh at this prospect, but let's do a little comparison to the NFL's timeline.
The American Professional Football Association formed in 1920 and became the National Football League in 1922. For the next eleven years it gained in popularity but still took a backseat to college football. 1933 was a watershed year when the NFL expanded, split into two conferences, and established a championship game. Most of the small town teams moved to major cities (except the Green Bay Packers) and the Pittsburgh Pirates were bought by the Rooney family, who still owns it to this day. In fact 12 of the NFL's 32 teams are owned by the original owner or his heirs today.
So it took the NFL eleven years to go from a backwater game with one small league to serious sport with real investors. After that came the NFL college draft in 1936, the first televised game in 1939, and finally expansion to the west coast in 1945 and more fans than college football with reforms to the game. By 1960 a second league (the American Football League) was formed and player salaries hit the roof when Joe Namath got $427,000 to play for the New York Jets. In 1966 the AFL and NFL merged and a new thing called television made the NFL what it is today - the most popular U.S. sports league with strong television ratings and annual league revenue topping $7 billion.
So where is rugby on that timeline? Somewhere between 1922 and 1933. It's been a part of American culture for over a hundred years in club form and has a professional organization, The Rugby Super League (we're not addressing rugby league just yet since it's a different game). But rugby union is fractured, can't agree on much, and has yet to take steps toward the NFL's 1933-style reformation. Despite its long history (and two Olympic gold medals), rugby in America is in the same disarray as football was after World War I when Jim Thorpe came along and united the clans and paved the way for the 1933 NFL explosion.
There are also big socioeconomic differences between the sports - rugby is a foreign game while the NFL is home grown. In 1933 sports options in the USA were limited while today an athlete has so many to choose from. Back then many of the country's best athletes (especially in college) opted for football because there just wasn't much else to play. In the 1930's the country was also climbing its way out of a debilitating depression and was looking for new forms of entertainment, which infused professional football with the one thing every sport needs - fans.
Still, when you look at what's at stake it's only a matter of time before someone with vision, leadership, and deep pockets realizes the potential of rugby and steps forward to take control and get the sport on the path to uber-profitablity.
According to a 2008 Forbes Magazine report, the average NFL team is worth $1.04 billion, up 8.7 percent from 2009’s $957 million due to the sport’s popularity and cash-generating new stadiums. In 1998 when Forbes first valued NFL teams, the average franchise was worth $288 million. That's a 325% jump in 10 years.
Several NFL teams have recently benefited from new stadiums that include more cash-generating luxury boxes. The top three teams in the Forbes list were the same as the last year: the Dallas Cowboys ($1.612 billion), the Washington Redskins ($1.538 billion) and the New England Patriots ($1.324 billion). According to Forbes, the Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers are worth the least.
The people who are bathing in that cash are the ones who got in very early and purchased a team long before it was overly popular. Investors are usually savvy people who prefer profit over philanthropy. They'll inject rugby with dollars only when they're convinced that they'll get a significant return on the investment and that won't happen until strong evidence suggests that rugby is attracting enough people to watch a game who are willing to spend money on merchandise. We may be getting there, albeit slowly.
Will rugby become as strong as the NFL in America? We think so, but probably not for another 30-40 years. Which means very soon you may see wise investors buy the rights to your favorite rugby club to get in before it gets big.