Rugby is finally taking on the NFL—on American football's home turf.
After years of booming popularity in the U.S. and Canada, rugby will finally get its first professional North American league in the form of the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO), USA Rugby announced Monday.
"Rugby is a natural fit for our country," Doug Schoninger, PRO Rugby's CEO, said in a statement. "Participation and interest in the sport is at an all-time high and the demand for a professional competition is clear."
The league's inaugural 10-game season will begin on April 17, 2016, concluding with a league championship in July, according to PRO's website. Things will go on hiatus in June, so the top players can ply their game during international competition. Rugby is official sport in the 2016 Rio Olympics, although the traditional powerhouses, namely "Four Nations" and "Six Nations" teams, will still be heavily favored to dominate. The U.S. already has a national team, nicknamed the Eagles, but it's been hindered so far—at least on the international stage—by the lack of any professional league like the ones that exist in Europe or Oceania. (The Eagles lost every one of their games at the recent Rugby World Cup in the U.K.)
“We welcome North American teams into the international rugby family," World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said in a statement. “With PRO Rugby in place, U.S. and Canadian players will be able to train year round and play in elite competition, something that has been sorely missing from rugby development in North America.”
How big is the rugby fan base in North America? "Big enough," says Lewis. "Rugby is now the fastest growing sport in the U.S.A."
The league likely look to capture that growing fan base with a set of "original six" teams. "The intention is to be a North American league with Canadian-based teams joining in 2017," says Steve Lewis, PRO's director of rugby operations. The new professional league will pull players from the U.S. and Canadian national teams, regional and club teams, and from abroad—just as professional leagues abroad do.
Each team's 30-man squad "can be drawn from anywhere, but [international players] will be limited to around 5 per team." PRO Rugby hasn't yet announced where those teams will be located, but a press release hints that they'll be based "in major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, the Rocky Mountains and California"—all strongholds of the sport in the States. Prior to PRO Rugby, America's best competition was in the West Coast-based Pacific Rugby Premiership and the Northeast-based American Rugby Premiership.
Another interesting wrinkle: Before each game, the league will hold athletic combines where club players can complete "a combination of athletic testing and rugby skills," in front of national coaches—a sort of proving ground where aspiring pros can knock heads.