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In a no-frills gym, on 16th street in Manhattan, a group of young athletes is getting down to lifting some serious weights. The guys here are strength training, and amidst the concentration, sweat and grunting, as legs and arms are clenched and unfurled, you can practically feel the tiny muscle fibers tearing. The teenagers here are part of Xavier High School’s rugby team, and they are serious about their workout.
If they work hard enough, some of them could end up at the Olympics one day playing rugby.
Rob Spenser, dressed for Halloween outside his job at a café serving Australian food. Until recently, rugby has been seen as something of a novelty in the U.S.
For the first time since 1924 (when the USA beat France to take the gold) rugby is going to the Olympics. And in case you suffer from American-itis when it comes to the world of international sports, i.e, your knowledge of rugby does exist, but is abstract – then let us offer you a description from 16-year-old, Jack Palillo, a junior at Xavier High School:
“It’s a game played by gentlemen, but it’s a ruthless game,” he says. “The people that play the game, they’re pretty scary and mean. But after every single game, usually you have some kind of reception. And the people who are your enemies five minutes ago, you’re eating lunch with them.”
Palillo plays 15-a-side rugby. The teams playing at the Olympics will use seven players. But either way, rugby is a cross between football and soccer. You can’t throw the ball forward, and the players don’t wear helmets. And for American Pro athletes there’s another difference, which even high-schooler Palillio is aware of:
“You’re definitely not getting paid as much,” he says.
While it packs stadiums elsewhere, rugby simply isn’t a big deal in the U.S. Since the announcement that the sport would be played in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, tiny bubbles of anticipation and excitement have started to percolate through the industry, but depending on whom you ask, it can be hard to tell what kind of difference the news has made. At the Times Square office of Michael Principe, CEO of The Legacy Agency, a sports marketing and management company, the decor is all-American. Football, basketball, and baseball memorabilia fill his office, but there’s only one rugby item – a lone jersey, framed and hung on the wall.
“Candidly, we didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about rugby five years ago. We didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about it three years ago,” says Principe.
But now the Legacy Agency is thinking about rugby. When a sport goes to the Olympics, “it’s a big deal.”
Notes Principe, when the Olympics goes out to TV viewers around the world, NBC and other sponsors will spend ungodly amounts of money on broadcast rights and commercials – “billions of dollars.”
And this is an extra-special case.
“It’s not often that the United States is considered a developing market,” says Principe, “an emerging market, but with rugby, it is.”
But ask the folks who run the national rugby team, and they say finding funding is a different story.
“There was a perception around the world that the minute the game went Olympic, suddenly everybody would be throwing tons and tons of dollars at all the big Olympic countries,” says Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby, the national governing body for the sport.
Melville says the Russians and Chinese both threw government money at their rugby teams, but in the U.S., not so much.
“The biggest challenge over here is there is no government funding,” says Melville of finding money to subsidize an Olympic team, “it’s reliant on sponsors and fundraising.”
Melville says the athletes training for the Olympics get a stipend – but it’s only about $20,000 a year. As for the Eagles, there’s a donate button on the team’s website.
There is a small payment for team members, but it’s not enough to live on, says Mike Petri, who, when he’s not working as a science teacher, or coaching Xavier High’s rugby team, plays scrum-half. Petri says he considers himself a professional athlete in the way he approaches the game, but not in the financial sense, but he says, he’s very hopeful for the future of the sport in the states. Being part of rugby now, he says, is like working for NASA.
“Realizing that we could send people to Mars,” he says. “Personally, I’m probably not going to be the person that goes to Mars, but if I were in NASA I’d be really excited and really pumped for the guys who did get to go.”
But there’s another draw beyond salary for 16-year-old Xavier High School team member John Patterson to playing rugby.
“It’s kind of associated with [the] foreign, but yet manliness, so, that’s always good,” he says.
Rugby, while exotic to some Americans, still possesses a familiar allure.
“When we play,” says Patterson, “we’re right by the bus stop, and everyone stops and watches.”
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