When Perry Baker scores a try from distance this weekend at the Los Angeles SVNS – and he will – imagine for a moment what the impact on rugby history might be if the same try were scored in the Olympic final in 2028 – also in Los Angeles – resulting in the USA winning gold on primetime TV.

For an additional moment, consider how this imaginary Olympic moment would shoot through the stratosphere if Baker were to score a try similar to the one he scored in 2018 in Las Vegas.

Of course, unless Perry Baker finds a way to cryogenically freeze himself after this weekend, it’s unlikely to be him that scores a match-winning try in 2028. He will be 42 by then after all. 

Perry Baker is, however, a perfect example of the kind of player that destiny would pick to score such a try to win an Olympic gold medal. Not only would he make the winning moment look like a blockbuster movie, but his own back story would also make Travis Kelce’s rocky road to success, fortune and fame look like the work of a rookie script writer warming up his pen.

Realistically, sadly, it won’t be Perry Baker who wins the Olympic final in 2028 – but it is realistic to talk of the USA winning gold in either (or both) of the men’s and women’s competitions.

Season after season for the past decade, USA teams have been challenging for, or winning, tournaments on the World Series, especially on home soil.

Taking Olympic gold in 2028 – or even silver or bronze – is a major goal for USA Rugby, because doing so could propel rugby into the mainstream in the ultra-competitive US sports market.

Indeed, Olympic success in 2028 would give rugby an even bigger lift than if the USA won back-to-back Rugby World Cups in 15s when they host it in 2031 (for the men) and 2033 (for the women).

To established rugby fans, that almost doesn’t sound right, yet that is just how powerful the Olympic rings are in the USA.

Nearly everyone around the world loves the Olympics, but in the USA, the love affair runs deeper. The USA’s population is around 340 million people, and about half that number watch the Olympics, so it is massive as a shop window for rugby in the States.

What’s more, is that come the Olympics, Americans tend to abandon their loyalties to sports they follow year-in, year-out as Team USA mania sweeps the nation. Surveys into Olympic viewing habits in the USA have pointed out that the key driver of watching the Olympics for men is ‘to support my country and athletes’ while for women the key driver is ‘because I love to watch the Olympic Games’. 

Both these motivators lend themselves well to the idea that if the women’s and men’s USA Sevens teams are in the hunt for a medal this summer, and especially in 2028, the American sports public will receive them, and by proxy the game of rugby, with open arms. Hundreds of millions of open arms.

Bigger than the Rugby World Cup?

Former USA Sevens international Dallen Stanford, who is now a Major League Rugby and HSBC SVNS commentator, is bullish on this point.

“An Olympic Games medal is way bigger than the Rugby World Cup for exposing the game to the 300 million Americans that watch the Olympic Games, or are interested in sports,” says Dallen.

“I think if the game is to gain proper traction within the non-rugby sports fans it has to be through the Olympic Games. Winning a Rugby World Cup, while that would be good, and the women have done it in the past [1991], it wouldn’t nearly have the same impact as if the men or women can win an Olympic medal.

“The Olympic Games is on NBC and it’s in almost every household there is, or at least in every bar there is. For the World Cup final in November, I went to a rugby bar in California and 400 people were watching it on a niche subscription TV network. The Olympics is watched by millions.

“For the last 10 years that I have been in broadcasting, rugby has been on ESPN, CBS, Fox Sports, so all the major networks but only for a small period of time, for one game, at odd hours, so it’s not really breaking through to the average American sports fan. My biggest hope as a rugby enthusiast is that if Americans can just watch rugby sevens they will fall in love with it, because it’s got all the elements that people love from other American sports.”

The opportunity is not lost on those at the heart of USA Rugby either. USA Rugby board member, Denis Shanagher, has said that it is “imperative we medal at Los Angeles 2028” and has confirmed that the political will exists within the union to move 15s players into the sevens programme in the build-up to the 2028 Olympics – just as France have done this year with Antoine Dupont.

Shanagher feels this is more likely to happen on the women’s side than on the men’s, however, which is as much an indication of how the USA men’s 15s team is short on superstars right now.

The good news is that four years leaves eons of time for a nation as athletically gifted as the USA to find the kind of talent that has characterised their sevens teams for the last decade. Players such as Perry Baker, but also Carlin Isles, Kevon Williams, Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, and Steve Tomasin.

On the women’s side of things, the names roll off the tongue too: Alev Kelter, Ilona Maher, Naya Tapper, Kris Thomas, and Abby Gustaitis.

Destiny has a funny way of working out and it could be that the player, or players, destined to lead the USA’s campaign for gold at Los Angeles 2028 are yet to discover the game of rugby. In the USA, the hunt is always on for athletes from other sports to pick up a rugby ball.

The popularity of the sport in America in the long term relies upon USA coaches working more magic in this regard, as well as bringing through the best young rugby talent from their established pathways.

With the potential reward being a re-shaping of rugby’s place within the national sporting consciousness in the USA, the stakes are extremely high.

Something to bear in mind as well when Perry runs in another this weekend.

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