Rugby in the United States: A question of “When,” not “If.”

Rugby has been around since 1823 and has yet to establish a foothold in the United States. However, Oliver Englehart of the New England Free Jacks believes a breakthrough is coming.

Englehart, a Free Jacks player and director of team operations, said the team has taken many approaches to increasing the fan base of Major League Rugby (MLR), and the cards seem to be stacking in their favor.

Englehart emphasized that youth involvement has significantly increased the popularity of rugby in New England.

 At a youth level, the team takes the approach of “mass participation,” said Engelhart. “Once [they] experience it, we think that people fall in love with it.”

 Through this approach, the Free Jacks expect more participation in New England than ever before.

Youth participants are funneled into 13 teams across the New England region. These groups disperse into high school and club leagues.  Players who become immersed in the sport feed into college and “Junior Jacks” programs. 

Building support with youth is crucial. In addition, the Free Jacks have a focus on New England sports fans.

“The whole [New England] area falls in love with…their teams,” said Englehart, adding this helps with filling stadiums. 

New England Football has a loyal and active fanbase, and rugby was one of the sport’s precursors, dating back over 100 years. As a player on the Free Jacks, Englehart notes players are “really invested in that team culture,” which is usually reciprocated by sports fans.

 A loyal team base is the key to a loyal fanbase, according to Engelhart.

 “People don’t fall in love with the sport, they fall in love with the people who play the sport,” he said.