NBC Sports Continues To Help Rugby Grow At All Levels

By Ed Molina
Jun. 02, 2015

University of Texas Rugby Longhorn senior Felix Olazaran (M) evades a Temple University tackler. Olazaran participated in this weekend's Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) that aired on the NBC Sports family of networks, which saw the California Golden Bears men's rugby and the Penn State Nittany Lions women's rugby squads both with their third championships.

Rugby continues to grow in the United States thanks in part to NBC Sports, who aired this weekends Collegiate Rugby Championship on their family of networks and digital platform.

Twenty of the top collegiate programs traveled to Philadelphia and battled in the 6th Annual Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) that saw both the California Golden Bears men's rugby team and the Penn State Nittany Lions women's squad win their third consecutive sevens titles.

"It’s a fast moving, high scoring, and action packed [sport], exactly what you’d want in a sport that’s trying to engage new fans," said Jon Miller, President of Programming at NBC Sports to .

Rugby continues to grow in this country, according to the , seeing an increase in participation by 13.3 percent over the last five years, with more high schools and colleges becoming more involved adding the sport to their athletic programs.

"I think the sleeping giant of USA rugby is awake," said Lindenwood University's women’s rugby head coach Billy Nicholas, whose team was defeated by Penn State in Sunday's CRC final. "Along with the increase in collegiate programs, it has been the increase of opportunities at the grassroots level with the growth of youth organizations across the national and the state-based organizations along with USA Rugby that have really had a massive increase to the sport, when players are getting experiences at a younger age it makes our nation a much stronger rugby nation on the world scale."

Lindenwood University is a perfect case study of how quickly the sport is blooming in the U.S. Lindenwood launched their women's rugby program in 2011, starting off in Division II, but made the leap to Division I in 2014 after the hiring of Nicholas. Since Nichols took over the program, the Lindenwood University Lions women's team has found success finishing in first place at the Wayne State 7s Nebraska Invitational, second place in Penn State 7s USA Qualifier, and third in Big 10 7s Tournament.

Nicholas has built up the program bringing in talent from all over the country, including recruiting sophomore Gioanna Cruz, who went to high school in The Bronx, New York, which is not exactly a hotbed of rugby.

"Rugby wasn't very popular in The Bronx when I started as far as I am aware but there had been people who knew about it before I did and with the help of my coach many of the kids in my school became really interested in learning and playing it," said Cruz, an environmental biology major who attended Bronx Studio High School in New York City. "It gave us an outlet to participate in a sport that would help us grow as people and give us something productive to do instead of hang out on the street. For several of my teammates and I it was the way to afford college."

Nicholas believes that players such as Cruz and the organizations that helped her hone her skills are essential to helping the sport gain a foothold in the US.

"Thanks to a handful of very eager rugby coaches, organizations like Play Rugby USA, high school coaches from around the [New York] city are adopting the sport into their school and recognizing the successes it brings with it, and even involves local clubs in the area like Old Blue RFC who support and encourage youth rugby as a developmental step in the pathway to senior club sides," said Nicholas.

Sponsors such as Heineken, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Subway, Anheuser-Busch, Bridgestone, Geico and Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company as well as NBC Sports are on the ground floor investing in the sport, gambling that it will latch on with American audiences. NBC Sports first aired games during the 2011 Rugby World Cup and has continued broadcasting rugby matches -- from the USA Sevens (also known as the Las Vegas Sevens) to the New Zealand's All-Blacks match in October 2014, their first trip to the US since 1980.

NBC Sports is also slated to air the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the 2016 Olympics rugby sevens tournament to be held in Rio de Janiero. Felix Olazaran, a senior on the University of Texas rugby team, believes broadcasting college tournaments such as the CRC has helped put rugby on the sports map.

"Rugby has been growing exponentially over the last couple of years in the US. I think events like this are great for the sport, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of it," said Olazaran, who is majoring in computer science, math, and economics. "There is definitely a feeling that this is growing, especially here in the city of Philadelphia where people know it's that time of the year, the CRC is in town and they love it. The US Eagles just recently made history by winning their first sevens world series at London, and the CRC has been known to produce national team caliber players, so that certainly puts the spotlight on us."

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