Jim Brown is a football man. Not to the same extent as the Pro Football Hall of Famer with whom he shares the same name. (“I’ve spent my life disappointing a lot of football fans when I make hotel reservations,” he says). And, actually, not even in that kind of football.
This Jim Brown, who lives in Park City, has worked and played at various levels of the other football — soccer — on and off for decades. He served as FIFA’s director of competitions for seven years, from 2003-10, and remains a consultant with international soccer’s governing body. Perhaps most notably, he led the successful bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
But before Brown had even gotten the confetti out of his hair after the United bid won in 2018, he took a call from someone he hadn’t spoken to in at least a dozen years: Ross Young, the newly named interim CEO of USA Rugby.
“That’s when,” Young said, “I asked Jim if he had had enough of all that football malarky and wanted to come across to a proper sport.”
On May 12, the International Rugby Federation is expected to award the United States the rights to host the 2031 Men’s Rugby World Cup and the 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup. The key cog in that successful bid was Brown, a football man with an interest in rugby.
Brown said he believes those Rugby World Cups can have the same effect on American sport as the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Held in the United States for the first time, and the last here until the mega-tournament returns in 2026, the Los Angeles Times called the 1994 World Cup “the most transformative event in U.S. soccer history.” It pulled U.S. Soccer up from near bankruptcy to profitability, led to the formation of Major League Soccer and drove many of the nation’s most notable players to the game, while also creating funding for grassroots initiatives that would keep them enmeshed in the sport.
USA Rugby faces many of the same challenges. It filed for bankruptcy in March 2020. Its professional league, Major League Rugby — which counts the Utah Warriors as one of its 13 franchises — has been around less than four years. And, despite record growth, rugby isn’t recognized as a sport by the NCAA.
“It’s not just putting on the event, it’s trying to establish and help the sport grow in a new market and a new country, to a certain extent, although there is a roving presence here,” Brown, 55, said. “And I think that dimension of really helping build something and grow something is a lot more [edifying] than jumping on a FIFA World Cup, which is a very different process.”
That 1994 World Cup had almost as resounding an impact on Brown’s professional life as it did on soccer in the U.S. Though he has gone on to oversee venues at four World Cups and three Olympics, Brown’s first gig in that field was as the director of operations at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif., for the 1994 tournament. He was 26.
He hadn’t even realized venue management was a job until four years earlier, when he attended the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
“Literally sitting in the stadium, it dawned on me: There are a lot of people walking around the field,” Brown said. The former player for Hamilton College in New York then thought, “‘Maybe one day I could do something like that,’ because I really liked the sport. I just wasn’t that good at it.”
Brown proved very good at venue management.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he oversaw the stadium that hosted track and field as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. He also ran the Olympic Stadium in Sydney for the 2000 Summer Games and was managing director of venues for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. In 2003, following his first move to Park City, FIFA hired him as its director of competitions. As such, he oversaw the planning of tournaments and events, including securing playing and practice facilities and arranging accommodation, travel, workers and logistics. Among the events he was in charge of were the 2006 World Cup in Germany — where he met Young — and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
In 2010, he retired and moved with his wife and their son and two twin babies from Europe back to Park City, where he continued to work as a consultant for FIFA. In 2017, though, he was approached by USA Soccer with an intriguing proposition. It was time to bring the FIFA World Cup back to North America, and it wanted Brown to head up its bid.
Colin Hilton, who has worked with Brown since he was a venue manager in Boston for the 1994 World Cup, said USA Soccer didn’t want Brown because he was a salesman.
“The talent Jim has is explaining,” he said. “And in a way that makes people go, ‘Oh, OK, I think we could do that’ or, you know, ‘That helps me have a perspective that is understandable.’”
He also had a vision. Combining the U.S., Canada and Mexico sent a message of international unity and stability, which was appealing after FIFA chose Brazil (2014), Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) to host the three previous World Cups.
In a vote of FIFA nations on June 13, 2018, the United bid won with 134 nation votes compared to 65 for Morocco.
Four days later, Young got Brown on the phone.
Young wasn’t even officially USA Rugby’s CEO. He’d been named to the position in interim two months earlier. But he had a plan to take the organization and the sport in the U.S. to the next level by following U.S. Soccer’s blueprint. So, despite his being a football man — or maybe because of it — he knew Brown was the one who could get them there.
“I would say it was the right man, right place,” Young said, noting he wanted someone who would challenge USA Rugby to dream big.
“It wasn’t just his major event and bidding [experience],” he added, “it was his experiences in other sport and helping being involved in U.S. Soccer while it was going through a growth stage. There’s so many synergies to it.”
Brown wasn’t completely ignorant when it came to the sport of rugby. He’d played rugby as a student at the Hong Kong International School and had attended a few Rugby World Cup matches. Plus, he liked the idea of working to bring attention to a sport that’s not very well known in the U.S., compared to working with one of the two biggest sporting events in the world.
“That’s not the most unpolitical environment in the world,” he said of the FIFA World Cup bids.
USA Rugby’s bid hinged on two factors. The first was a unique locale. Held every four years since 1987, the Rugby World Cup has traditionally been hosted by one of the sport’s powerhouse nations, such as New Zealand, France, England or South Africa. In 2019, the tournament ventured to Japan, to much success. USA Rugby positioned itself as another outlier that, if given the opportunity to host, could propel international acceptance of the sport.
The second key to the bid was the U.S.’s proposal to host back-to-back men’s and women’s tournaments. The idea was that it would not only keep rugby on Americans’ radar, but it would make use of economies of scale, with sponsors signing on for both events and both sharing basic infrastructure.
Oh, and it made sure World Rugby promised to pick up the tab.
The U.S. bid initially targeted the 2027 and 2029 Rugby World Cup. But those events could have impinged on a couple other mega sports events planned for the country — namely the FIFA World Cup in 2026, the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and potentially the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake. So, World Rugby granted the 2027 Games to Australia and entered a “targeted dialog” with the USA for 2031 and 2033 — meaning it is not working with any other bid committees for those dates.
As they await the decision in May, organizers are busy evaluating potential host sites. Brown said close to 30 cities had applied to host, more than double the number needed. It is unlikely any men’s games will be played in Utah if the U.S. is granted the bid, though foreign teams might use the area as a base camp. The likelihood of the area hosting women’s games is much stronger, he said.
After all of this, does Brown still consider himself a football man, or has rugby won him over?
“If there’s a ball involved, I’ll help out anybody,” he joked. “Even shuttlecock, I’ll help out.”
In reality, though, Brown said he wouldn’t mind staying involved with USA Rugby through the World Cups. He’s also open to taking on another project, as long as its purpose is more than just to make money.
“I want to work with good people and I want to work on stuff that helps a lot of people,” he said. “And I know it sounds a little corny, perhaps. But as I get older, you know, that’s really the truth.
“Certainly if there’s an opportunity to do something new and different I’ll definitely consider it.”
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