Many years ago, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” was the one television program that provided American viewers the chance to sneak a peek at athletic competition not readily available to them.
It’s where I saw my first World Cup soccer match, which led to an obsession with “The Beautiful Game” that has lasted for almost half a century.
And I think it’s also where I was introduced to rugby, which has recently shot way up the charts in terms of my interest.
I have a vague memory of being a kid and watching a bunch of guys play “football without pads,” and a little research shows that “Wide World of Sports” featured the English Rugby League Cup Final on May 27, 1967.
I would’ve been only 6 at the time, and a one-off rugby match is kind of a random thing to remember.
Yet, I’m going to give it credit for planting a seed that sprouted in a major way last weekend when I watched four Major League Rugby matches. And I hope to watch many, many more in the years to come.
Saturday featured three terrific games. The club I’ve chosen to cheer for, Rugby United New York, edged San Diego, 25-23; NOLA (New Orleans) held off Toronto, 36-31; and Houston nipped Austin, 21-20.
Opening week action ended on Sunday with Seattle besting Glendale (greater Denver), 20-18. (Utah, the ninth team in the league, had a bye week).
If the founders of MLR were hoping to woo casual fans, their teams couldn’t have done a better job of showing off the product. The largest margin of victory was five points, so every contest was in doubt until the end.
I’m already plotting my viewing strategy for this week, which features one game on Friday and two on Saturday.
In years past, my sportsball weekends in February were dominated by soccer, hockey and basketball. Now rugby has been added to the rotation, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to stay there until the season wraps up in June.
So why the sudden surge of interest?
Well, because it’s really interesting.
Last season was the first for MLR and I considered myself a fan (for what it’s worth, I rooted for the NOLA Gold). I enjoyed what I saw – especially early in the season – but ultimately I saw less and less in the spring because I often found myself distracted by other sports.
Over the summer, though, I started closely following Premiership Rugby – the top league in England – and that helped me ease into learning the nuances of the game and the flow of rugby union competition.
Plus, I had already signed up for MLR email alerts, so I was getting info on America’s domestic league on a regular basis.
As the season drew closer the more interested in it I became, and I decided New York would be my new favorite team going forward. (Even though I don’t live there I’ve always loved visiting NYC, and have an affinity for New York-based pro teams).
So while United was the main attraction, I invested a decent chunk of my weekend in Major League Rugby.
It was a sound investment.
And really, it makes perfect sense that I’d become a fan.
I’m passionate about association football and tackle football, and rugby is a logical bridge between the two.
I enjoy the combination of physical strength and agility, and the speed and motion keep me entertained from start to finish. Plus, the rules are relatively simple – and simple to learn from a fan’s perspective.
Next year the circuit will grow by a fourth, with the New England Free Jacks and teams in Atlanta and Washington boosting the size of MLR to 12 teams.
And since the game has become my new “it” sport, I hope its professional version takes hold and finds a solid niche in North America.
Obviously, I have no way of knowing if Major League Rugby is here to stay.
What I do know, however, is that I plan to stay with it for as long as it lasts.