France Behind the Rise of Rugby in the United States

The United States, the land of football, may well be hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2031. This ambition is a reflection of the boom in Major League Rugby, a U.S. rugby union competition, which has largely been made possible by French players, coaches, and managers.

Between late April and early May, two French players announced they were being transferred to the United States. Mathieu Bastareaud, a center for Toulon and captain of the French national team, will be playing for Rugby United New York from 2020, and David Mélé, scrum-half for Perpignan, will be joining Austin Elite Rugby in Texas as both a player and a coach.

“We are bringing in French players because there are training centers and professional clubs in France that don’t yet exist in the United States,” says Thierry Daupin, owner and CEO of Austin Elite Rugby. This 40-year-old Nimes native moved to Texas in 2015 and helped to found the American league in 2017 — he participated in the negotiation of the match broadcasting rights with the CBS sports channel.

Major League Rugby (MLR) currently has nine professional clubs, eight in the United States and one in Canada. The clubs of Boston, Washington D.C., and Atlanta will be joining the league in 2020, and Dallas and Los Angeles will follow in 2021. The cities of Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Las Vegas, Montreal, and Vancouver are also interested. According to Thierry Daupin, the league’s objective is to create an American championship worthy of the French Top 14, before going on to host the World Cup.

The United States, a New Eldorado for Rugby

Rugby seems to have gone unnoticed in the scramble of U.S. sports. In terms of popularity it is far behind American football, baseball, and basketball. An unofficial ranking put it at 21st place between bowling and gymnastics! However, it is currently the fastest-growing sport in the United States. The U.S.A. Rugby federation has 125 000 members, an increase of 250 % in ten years. “The United States are ranked in the top fifteen countries for rugby union and in the top five for women’s rugby,” says Thierry Daupin. “This sport has an incredible potential in America!”

This potential has caught the attention of Pierre Arnald. The former director of the Parisian club Stade Français invested 1.2 million dollars in Rugby United New York last year. “They have the clubs and the teams. It’s the perfect time to create a professional league in the United States,” he says. And his actions match his words, as Pierre Arnald is now the general manager of the New York Club. “The English and the Irish love rugby; why not the Americans?”

In an effort to draw in fans, the head of Rugby United New York is hoping to target communities who already enjoy the sport. The creation of programs in middle schools, high schools, and universities will also boost the popularity of rugby while training future generations of players. In Austin, Thierry Daupin has invested in the construction of a training center.

P-1 Visas for French Athletes

International players still make up a major percentage of American teams. The U.S. federation has set a limit of ten international players per team and per match. In Austin, David Mélé will be joining French players Simon Bienvenu and Soheyl Jaoudat, recruited in 2018. And in New York, Pierre Arnald is looking for “at least one other French player” to join Mathieu Bastareaud. “I need players with open minds and strong characters who can adapt to the United States,” he says. International players receive a five-year P-1 athlete’s visa which corresponds to the length of their contract.

The U.S. clubs have one big advantage: The reduced costs of the sport mean they have more freedom to purchase experienced players. A rugby player can go for around 1.6 million euros, compared with 200 million euros for a soccer player! What’s more, the MLR caps the salaries of professional players at 45,000 dollars per seven-month season. This limits speculation, but forces players to have another job to supplement their sporting careers. “The salaries of players in the United States have not yet reached the level of those in Europe [Mathieu Bastareaud is paid a gross monthly salary of more than 40,000 euros according to French sports newspaper L’Equipe],” says Thierry Daupin. “But the American Dream is a big draw for players.”

The rugby season follows the American football season and runs from February through June. The finals matches have not yet begun, but the French league has already expressed its desire to “participate commercially in the operation of the U.S. league,” says Pierre Arnald. Discussions are underway to make U.S. rugby a transatlantic success.