Over the past two months, the city of Philadelphia has seen playoffs for two very different collegiate sports. This past weekend, PPL Park played host to the 6th Annual Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, a gathering of twenty teams from across the nation to compete in the “Sevens” format of rugby. Excitement around the tournament was palpable, with NBC coverage providing access and Mark Cuban tweeting about the rise of his former hobby.
Conversely, just one month prior, neighboring Lincoln Financial Field housed the NCAA lacrosse national championships to a disappointing turnout. Despite being hosted each year in hotbeds for the sport like Baltimore and Philadelphia, attendance at the national semifinals (also known as the “Final Four”) has declined the past seven years. As reported by the New York Times, the three-day event’s peak attendance hit over 120,000 in 2007, but when the Final Four returned to Baltimore last year, there was a drop of more than 36%.
The opposing trends around these two sports’ championship weekends begs the question regarding where athletic departments have chosen to invest their limited resources. College lacrosse programs have grown by leaps and bounds, with over ninety new programs springing up in the past six years, yet viewership for the elite echelons of the game have seen dramatic drop-off. Lacrosse continues to grow at its lower levels, but that growth does not appear to be translating into spectators tuning in or filling seats, where revenue is generated for college athletic departments.
Similarly, rugby’s popularity is also gaining momentum at its youth levels, and the multitude of newly minted middle and high school teams can send players to one of 900 collegiate teams which, interestingly, mostly fall outside NCAA’s governance. Women’s rugby is recognized by the NCAA as an “emerging sport,” but does not yet enjoy full standing, and there is no NCAA affiliation with collegiate men’s teams. That the buzz that was generated surrounding last weekend’s Collegiate Rugby Championships took place outside of the largest governing body for collegiate athletics is a startling accomplishment for a sport which doesn’t bear the badge of the NCAA or have “official” status enjoyed by so many other collegiate teams. In fact, in only the rarest circumstances is rugby even a varsity sport at the college level, making this past weekend’s event all the more notable
Despite the lack of NCAA involvement and varying status on campuses, sponsors are undeterred. Deals with Penn Mutual, Coca Cola, and NBC show that college rugby, even in its current iteration, can be a moneymaker. While lacrosse’s premium annual offering seems to be in a state of decline, schools might look to rugby as having a potential future and be worth further investment. Lacrosse’s growth on university campuses has been remarkable in the past two decades and youth involvement is strong, but if poor attendance trends continue, athletic departments might wonder if they invested in the wrong sport.
Feature image via J. Megaw/Pitch Engine