When the U.S. hosts its first Rugby World Cups, Utah stands to be a major beneficiary

State may host games and training camps and benefit from focus on growth at the grassroots level

(Eugene Hoshiko | AP) The Webb Ellis Cup on display ahead of a 2019 Rugby World Cup game between Argentina and the United States in Kumagaya City, Japan, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019.

Ashlee Byrge grew up watching the boys play rugby. When she was 10, her brother played for Highland High. Then, when she turned 14, she finally got her chance on the pitch when she helped pioneer Utah’s first girls program at Herriman High.

Yet Byrge didn’t imagine herself playing on the sport’s biggest international stage, the Rugby World Cup, until she was named to the national team. Actually, she’d barely even heard of the event before then, an indication of how obscure the sport was in the United States.

That’s all about to change.

On Thursday, World Rugby announced it had selected the United States to host the Men’s Rugby World Cup in 2031 and the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2033. Park City resident Jim Brown led USA Rugby’s historic bid, which will place the sport’s premiere events on American soil for the first time. And Utah, which has a long rugby history and is home to the Utah Warriors of Major League Rugby, could get in on some of the action.

“I think everyone knows that the United States likes to have a party, so we’re ready to party,” Victoria Folayan, the athlete representative on USA Rugby’s board of directors, told the media following the announcement. “Let’s do it!”

In addition to selecting the U.S. to host the 2031 and 2033 World Cups, the Rugby World Council voted to have England host the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup and Australia host the men’s and women’s tournaments in 2027 and 2029, respectively.

This year New Zealand will host the women’s tournament from Oct. 8-Nov. 12. It had been selected to host in 2021 but postponed the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic. France will host the 2023 men’s event.

While France, New Zealand, England and Australia all have been steeped in the sport for decades, it hasn’t found firm footing here. World Rugby is hoping that hosting the World Cup will spur its growth in the U.S., similar to how hosting the 1994 and 1999 FIFA World Cups led to a boom in interest in soccer stateside.

“Everybody sort of looks upon the USA as a sort of golden nugget that everybody wants to get hold of. But it is probably the world’s biggest sporting market. It has a huge amount of fantastic athletes, men and women, who probably don’t really see a lot of rugby,” Sir Bill Beaumont, the World Rugby chairman, said. “So what it will do to the USA will give the opportunity, I think, for many, many people, girls and boys, men and women, to appreciate our great game. When we leave from the USA, what we will leave is an extremely sustainable, vibrant sport.”

The Utah Warriors want to be on the crest of that wave.

Growing rugby in Utah

Founded in 2010, the organization has mimicked the fits and starts of top-tier rugby in the U.S. The Warriors played a single season in the Rugby Super League in 2011 before folding in 2012. The league folded the following year. Then the Warriors were resurrected in 2017 as a founding member of Major League Rugby, the highest-level league in North America. Last season, they finished second in the overall standings — historically, their best finish — before losing in the playoff semifinals.

Kimball Kjar, CEO of the Utah Warriors, said the long run-up to hosting will allow the U.S. to invest in rugby from the bottom up.

(Aaron Cornia | Utah Warriors) The Utah Warriors shown here in their inaugural match in 2018 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

“The Rugby World Cup coming to the United States is a game-changer for this sport, this league and for the Warriors,” Kjar said in a news release. “With an unprecedented investment into media and grassroots development that will precede the event, the next nine years will be a once in a lifetime opportunity … to revolutionize the sport for generations to come.”

It’s Byrge’s job to find and develop the next generation. A recent member of the Women’s Eagles for both the rugby sevens — which is played in the Olympics — and the full 15s squads, which plays in the World Cup, she was hired six months ago for the newly created position of director of the Junior Warriors youth rugby program. She has seen the program, for ages 5 to 14, blossom since she took over, including a touch league that has teams in Washington and Nevada. But she’s expecting even more athletes, more competitions and a strong drive to try to be on the field when the Rugby World Cup is first played on American soil.

Byrg said she’s even noticed an attitude shift in just the few hours since the announcement was made.

“I think it’s so important to me to tell these kids how attainable it actually is, especially the age range that they’re in now,” she said. “It’s one thing to be like, ‘Oh, I’m able to go play in a World Cup in this country.’ But to just make it very clear to them that like, ‘OK, you just picked the rugby ball up for your very first time in your life, but guess what? In 10 years you could play for your country on home turf.’”

And that home turf could be within just a few miles of their childhood home.

Will Salt Lake host a Rugby World Cup match?

Brown said organizers are seriously considering the greater Salt Lake area as a site for World Cup games and training camps

“I’ve talked to the rugby people here in Salt Lake,” Brown told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, “and certainly the intention would be for Salt Lake to be ultimately a candidate for a women’s [game], or maybe a men’s, depending on how ticket sales go.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jim Brown has been working to bring the rugby world cup to the USA. Brown was pictured on the rugby field in Park City on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

Salt Lake City was not listed among the 25 potential host sites released by USA Rugby on Thursday. But that’s in part, Brown said, because the site selection process is fluid and also because Utah is considered a better fit to host the women’s tournament. Some lag in decisions about the logistics around that event are to be anticipated, he said, since it will be held two years after the men’s World Cup.

For the men’s tournament, World Rugby organizers said they will be seeking out stadiums that can seat between 55,000 and 100,000 people. The newly expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah seats 51,444, which might be acceptable except that its dimensions are not conducive for rugby, Brown said. Brown, who led the winning bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup that will be shared among the U.S., Canada and Mexico, said organizers ran into the same issue when considering holding soccer games there.

The women’s tournament, on the other hand, will be more likely to make use of Major League Soccer stadiums. Roughly 20,000 people can fit into Rio Tinto, the home of Real Salt Lake in Sandy.

With its high altitude, rugby-ready facilities and close proximity to an airport, Brown said he expects several teams will select Utah for their training camps as well.

When it comes to benefitting from the U.S. hosting the Rugby World Cup, “I think [Utah is] well positioned,” Brown said. “... The right people in Utah are already thinking about it, and I’ve had discussions with a few of them, and I think they’re prepared to do the work.”

That work includes creating a fertile soil in which the sport can grow from the ground up. And that’s something Byrge has already begun. She didn’t know as a kid that playing in something like the World Cup was possible. Her athletes will.

“I am manifesting,” she said, “that there will be at least one player for USA that started with Junior Warriors, went through the pathway program, plays for the Utah Warriors, makes the team and plays in nationals.”