If you're one of the millions of Americans who have never seen a rugby sevens match, who might not even know the sport exists, you'll probably be surprised to learn that NBC is devoting 14 hours to this weekend's 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships at PPL Park in Chester.
Is this a slow week for celebrity poker?
The answer is simple. Rugby sevens will become an Olympic sport in 2016, and NBC has long carried a torch for anything related to the Games its multimillions support.
"Rugby sevens first came on our radar a few years ago when it, along with golf, was admitted as a new sport into the Olympics," Jon Miller, head of programming for NBC Sports and Versus, said Tuesday. "We started investigating it and looking into it, and we realized what an incredibly fast-paced, exciting sport it was, one that people in this country really didn't know about."
If the network has guessed right, that should begin to change Saturday and Sunday, when the Olympian coverage on NBC, Versus, and Universal Sports will be sprinkled with rugby lessons, graphic tutorials, and comparisons to football, rugby's hyper-popular American descendant.
Though most U.S. colleges offer rugby - usually as a club sport - the NCAA does not yet sanction the sport. This collegiate tournament was devised a year ago by NBC, USA Rugby, USA Seven, and the International Rugby Board. The 2010 event, with more limited television coverage, took place in Columbus, Ohio.
"That first tournament beat the NCAA lacrosse championship head-to-head," Miller said about ratings. "We were pretty pleased."
Without an NCAA to develop a selection process, NBC and USA Sevens themselves chose the 16 teams, "all brand names," Miller said.
Utah and California, last year's champion and runner-up, respectively, were easy. The other schools, which include Penn State and Temple, were selected based on their performance this year. According to an NBC spokesman, some consideration was given to geography, apparently to produce a field that might attract viewers from all regions.
A variant of the traditional 15-vs.-15 rugby, sevens has been played for more than a century. Its games are contested on the same field (330 feet by 230 feet) but with two seven-man teams and two seven-minute halves. The typical sevens game lasts 20 minutes. As a result, the 16-team tournament this weekend can be completed in two days.
NBC hopes this streamlined version of rugby, speedier and more wide-open, will appeal to American audiences.
"People here know a little bit about rugby and obviously there was the movie Invictus [about the sport in South Africa]. But very few if any people knew about rugby sevens. It's much faster. I equate it to baseball without a centerfielder. . . . You need to be a five-tool athlete to play."
There are signs America is taking note. At the 2011 USA Sevens tournament - for amateur club teams - in Las Vegas, total attendance for the two-day event jumped from 14,000 a year earlier to 50,000.
According to Miller, NBC and USA Sevens wanted last year's initial collegiate tournament to be held in the Philadelphia area, but PPL Park wasn't yet open.
International rugby officials, he said, "very much want to" stage the 2019 World Cup of rugby in the United States and many will be here this weekend to observe the crowds, operation, and enthusiasm surrounding the sevens tourney.
Asked what about the city appealed to the sevens officials and the network, now owned by Comcast, Miller said it was because Philadelphia was "one of the top two or three - if not the greatest - sports cities in the U.S."
"The city not only supports the Phillies, Eagles, Sixers, and Flyers," he said, "but it also supports new events. I saw what happened with the NCAA wrestling that was held there several months ago, and I was blown away."
The telecast will begin on Saturday, when Universal Sports shows opening-round games from noon to 2 p.m. Versus and NBC10 take over from 2 to 4. NBC assumes coverage from 4 to 6 p.m. before it returns to Versus for the final two hours. On Sunday, Universal Sports will be on the air from noon to 2, Versus and NBC10 will simulcast from 2 to 4, and NBC goes from 4 to 6.
"All that for a sport that two years ago had no coverage in this country," he said.
So who does Miller anticipate will comprise the TV audience?
"There are a lot of expats who know the sport and love it. Plus, I think there's a lot of curiosity about the sport, especially on college campuses," said Miller.
"Every college and university has a program, and we're starting to see more and more development on the high school and even the middle-school levels. It's such a good sport for developing athletic ability, endurance, and conditioning."
All About Sevens Rugby
Here are some pointers for this weekend's USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships at Drexel on Friday and PPL Park in Chester on Saturday and Sunday:
5 points: A player carries the ball and touches it down in the tryzone. This is known as a "try." In football, it's the end zone. It's worth six points in football, and the ball does not need to touch the ground.
2 points: After a "try," a conversion kick through the uprights is attempted. In football, the same kick is worth one point.
3 points: A penalty kick can be taken after an infraction by the opponent. In football, it's like a field goal.
Each match consists of two seven-minute halves.
The object is to move the ball downfield and score.
The ball may be passed laterally or backward but never forward.
The ball may be advanced by running or kicking it forward.
There is no blocking.
Sixteen men's teams are divided into four pools.
Teams play in their pool on Saturday. The top eight teams go to a quarterfinals championship bracket on Sunday, and the bottom eight teams go to a challenger quarterfinals bracket on Sunday. The men's final is at 5:20 p.m. on Sunday.
For the women, there are eight teams, four in two pools. They play their qualifiers on Friday at Drexel and advance to the quarterfinals, semifinals, and championship game on Sunday. The final is 3:30 p.m.
Men's club teams: Temple, California, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Penn State, Boston College, Dartmouth, Notre Dame, Utah, Army, Central Washington, Navy, North Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma,Texas.
Women's club teams: Temple, Penn State, Brown, Army, Navy, North Carolina, Virginia, Princeton.
A scrum is used to restart play after some infractions and involves each team's forwards coming together at the shoulders in a line and trying to knock the ball back to their team's side. It's similar to a tip-off in basketball.
If a ball is kicked or taken out of bounds, it is restarted by a lineout, which is similar to the throw-in in soccer except the teams lift a player in the air to catch the throw.
A ruck comes after a runner has been tackled. Players from both teams bind together over the ball and try to push their opponent over and gain possession.
Friday: Women's tournament at Drexel (corner of 43d Street and Powelton Avenue) - Noon-7 p.m.
Saturday: Men's tournament, PPL Park,
10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Sunday: Men's and women's championships, PPL Park, starting at 8 a.m.