Rugby in Latin America

As a sport, rugby is a mass of contradictions. On one hand, the sport is played by schoolboys at elite institutions as formative training for manliness. On the other hand, the sport is also played by working-class people. Across the world, rugby is immensely popular in a number of regions: western Europe, South Africa, Australasia and Micronesia. The game itself emphasizes both strength and speed, and both brawn and brains are important. There are contrasting and fascinating styles of play, from the physical European style to the playful Fijian style to the balanced all-round New Zealand style.

There is an overall International Rugby Board to coordinate and promote the sport internationally. Each country has its own national union(s). (Note: it is very important to use the term UNION for proper identification; the word LEAGUE cannot be used since rugby league is a different sport). Here are some Latin American national unions:

There is a Rugby World Cup competition too. For the 1999 edition, Argentina (the team is known as the Pumas) is the leading qualifier from the Americas, beating USA and Canada easily.  There is a Spanish-language rugby portal at Mundo Rugby and an Argentine rugby magazine Try.

The popularity of a sport is measured not just in terms of the successes of the national team, but also by the extent of grassroots participation. In the Los Medios y Mercados de Latinoamérica 1997 study, we found that about 1.2 million persons between the ages of 12 and 64 in Latin America have played rugby in the last 12 months. Of course, this figure includes both organized matches as well as recreational "two-hand touch" games. Of these people, about 220,000 say that they are regulars who play on a weekly basis.

Geographically, the regulars are concentrated in Mexico (74,000), Argentina (59,000) and Chile (51,000). Agewise, the regulars are all between 12 and 44, with a median age of about 17. The high involvement of young people in the sport clearly augurs well.

Rugby has the image of being a game in which men punch, kick, bite and gouge each other. For that reason, it is rare to find females in organized games. The International Rugby Board has an established agenda for promoting Women's Rugby. In fact, there are some female rugby clubs in Latin America, such as the Rui Barbosa Wolves.

In terms of media exposure, we found that about 3,000,000 people in Latin America watched rugby on television within the last 12 months. Now, rugby is considered to be a lesser popular sport and is therefore rarely shown on broadcast television, which in turn meant that there are fewer viewers. One of the nicest things about multichannel television is that people will be able to watch all sorts of niche programs. A global cable/satellite channel such as ESPN and Fox Sports Américas will be able to bring on high-caliber international matches (such as the Rugby World Cup, the European championship, the Hong Kong Sevens tournament, etc), as well as showcase the great teams of the world (the New Zealand All-Blacks, the South African Springboks, the British Lions, etc).

(posted by Roland Soong, 9/23/98)

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