RugbyUSA250By Kevin Roberts, Editorial Director, SportBusiness Group

There was an interesting insight into the relationship between sport and money from Brett Gospar, chief executive of the International Rugby Board, when I met him last week for an interview to be published in the upcoming edition of SportBusiness International magazine.
He believes that rugby in Russia – which this year hosts the IRB Sevens World Cup -  might well be at a higher level if it wasn’t for the size of the salaries  paid to players in a professional league based in and around Moscow.
There the players can earn more than would make in either France, England or the  Celtic league and  consequently have no incentive  to leave home and test  their skills against some of the best players in the world, week-in-week out.
The result is that they are not exposed to the levels of competition, coaching and cross-fertilisation of skills and ideas which drive-up overall playing standards and, consequently, rugby in Russia is not developing as fast as it might.
This is the opposite situation to that of Argentina, many of whose most promising players have gone abroad, improved and propelled the national team to the upper reaches of the global rankings.
It is an unusual,  if not unique, situation in which sport  develops faster at a professional level than at the grass roots and  might provide a lesson for  administrators tempted to believe that  money is the solution to more or less every development obstacle.
Elsewhere in rugby the picture is rather different.  The inclusion of the sport in the Olympic Games from 2014 has opened up new areas of funding from National Olympic Committees and this, together with the funding generated and distributed by the IRB from the profits of Rugby World Cup, is being channelled into athlete development and grassroots programmes which should deepen and strengthen the game’s hold in the 120 nations around the world which currently have established rugby unions.
This is likely to have a particular impact in the United States where the Olympic inclusion opens the door to a share not only of the riches of the USOC but its leading-edge training and sports medicine facilities.  
Rugby, like every other sport, would welcome a chance to crack the American market.  The sport is relatively well established at the collegiate level and from a relatively small player base the national team – the US Eagles – consistently qualifies for the Rugby World Cup but continues to languish at between 12 and 16 in the world rankings. 
So where could the breakthrough come from?  Certainly a podium position for the sevens team in Rio or at the 2020 Games (wherever they might be) stands to ignite the public imagination and cerate massive enthusiasm for the 15-a-side game.
But perhaps the key to achieving critical mass is the formation of a televised national league in which local talent goes shoulder-to-shoulder with players from around the world, giving it the development potential which is, apparently, currently lacking in Russia.
Up until now cracking the States has been little more than a pipe dream, and one shared by cricket and more or less every other sport which has identified the cultural and ethnic diversity of the US population, the breadth of media opportunities and the potential for backing from the commercial sector.
But, after a number of false starts, soccer seems to have discovered the code and although it may take years or even decades-  and while it would be unrealistic to expect the same level of impact - it might just be that rugby,  fuelled by Olympic exposure,   could be next.
After all, national league should improve US players with a consequent impact on the nation’s world ranking and competitiveness at the World Cup.  And, as we all know, America loves winners. 

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