Jim Brown is a footballer. Not to the same extent as the Pro Football Hall of Famer with whom he shares the same name. (“I spent my life disappointing a lot of football fans when I made hotel reservations,” he says). And, in fact, not even in this kind of football.
This Jim Brown, who lives in Park City, has worked and played in different levels of the other football – soccer – for decades. He was FIFA’s director of competitions for seven years, from 2003 to 2010, and remains a consultant to international football’s governing body. Perhaps most notably, he spearheaded the successful bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.
But before Brown had even brushed the confetti out of his hair after United’s 2018 win, he got a call from someone he hadn’t spoken to in at least a dozen years: Ross Young , the new interim CEO of USA Rugby. .
“That’s when,” Young said, “I asked Jim if he was tired of all this football malarky and wanted to get into a proper sport.”
On May 12, the International Rugby Federation is expected to award the United States the right to host the 2031 Men’s Rugby World Cup and 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup. The key cog in that successful bid was Brown, a footballer passionate about rugby.
Brown said he believed these Rugby World Cups could have the same effect on American sport as the 1994 Soccer World Cup. Held in the United States for the first time, and last here until return of the mega-tournament in 2026, the Los Angeles Times called the 1994 World Cup “the most transformative event in American football history.” It took American football from near bankruptcy to profitability, led to the formation of Major League Soccer, and brought many of the country’s most notable players to the game, while also creating funds for development initiatives. base that would keep them entangled in the sport.
USA Rugby faces many of the same challenges. This filed for bankruptcy in March 2020. Its professional league, Major League Rugby — which counts the Utah Warriors as one of its 13 franchises — has been around for less than four years. And, despite record growth, rugby is not recognized as a sport by the NCAA.
“It’s not just about organizing the event, it’s about trying to establish and help the sport grow in a new market and a new country, to some extent, although ‘there’s a traveling presence here,” Brown, 55, said. “And I think that dimension of really helping to build something and develop something is much more [edifying] than jumping on a FIFA World Cup, which is a very different process.
That 1994 World Cup had almost as resounding an impact on Brown’s professional life as it did on football in the United States. Although he went on to oversee the venues of four World Cups and three Olympics, Brown’s first gig in this field was as operations manager. at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California for the 1994 tournament. He was 26 years old.
He hadn’t even realized venue management was a job until four years earlier, when he attended the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
“Literally sitting in the stadium, I understood: there are a lot of people walking around on the pitch,” Brown said. The former player from Hamilton College in New York then said to himself: “’Maybe one day I could do something like this’, because I really loved this sport. I just wasn’t very good at it.
Brown proved to be very good at site management.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, he oversaw the stadium which hosted athletics as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. He also managed the Sydney Olympic Stadium for the 2000 Summer Games and served as general manager of venues for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. In 2003, following his first move to Park City, FIFA hired him as Director of Competitions. In this capacity, he oversaw tournament and event planning, including securing playing and training facilities and arranging accommodation, travel, workers and logistics. Among the events he was responsible for were the 2006 World Cup in Germany – where he met Young – and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
In 2010 he retired and moved with his wife and their son and two twin babies from Europe to Park City, where he continued to work as a consultant for FIFA. In 2017, however, he was approached by USA Soccer with an intriguing proposition. It was time to bring the FIFA World Cup back to North America, and he wanted Brown to lead his bid.
Colin Hilton, who has worked with Brown since he was hall manager in Boston for the 1994 World Cup, said USA Soccer didn’t want Brown because he was a salesman.
“Jim’s talent is to explain,” he said. “And in a way that makes people say, ‘Oh, OK, I think we could do this’ or, you know, ‘It helps me get an understandable perspective.'”
He also had a vision. The combination of USA, Canada and Mexico sent a message of international unity and stability, which was appealing after FIFA picked Brazil (2014), Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) ) to host the previous three World Cups.
In a vote of FIFA nations on June 13, 2018, the United’s bid was won with 134 domestic votes against 65 for Morocco.
Four days later, Young spoke to Brown on the phone.
Young wasn’t even officially the CEO of USA Rugby. He had been appointed to the post on an interim basis two months earlier. But he had a plan to take the organization and the sport in the United States to the next level by following the plan of US Soccer. So, despite being a football man — or maybe because of it — he knew Brown was the one who could get them there.
“I would say he was the right man, in the right place,” Young said, noting he wanted someone who would challenge USA Rugby to dream big.
“It was not only his major event and his candidacy [experience]“It was his experiences in other sports and his involvement in American football as he went through a growth phase. There are so many synergies in there.
Brown was not completely ignorant when it came to the sport of rugby. He had played rugby as a student at the Hong Kong International School and attended a few Rugby World Cup matches. Plus, he liked the idea of working to bring attention to a sport that isn’t widely known in the United States, versus working with one of the two biggest sporting events in the world.
“It’s not the most apolitical environment in the world,” he said of the FIFA World Cup bids.
USA Rugby’s bid was based on two factors. The first was a unique place. Organized every four years since 1987, the Rugby World Cup is traditionally organized by one of the sports powers, such as New Zealand, France, England or South Africa. In 2019, the tournament ventured to Japan, with great success. USA Rugby has positioned itself as another outlier that, if given the opportunity to accommodate, could propel the sport’s international acceptance.
The second key to the bid was the United States’ proposal to hold back-to-back men’s and women’s tournaments. The idea was that it would not only keep rugby on Americans’ radar, but it would use economies of scale, with sponsors signing on for both events and sharing basic infrastructure.
Oh, and it made World Rugby promise to pay the tab.
The US bid initially targeted the 2027 and 2029 Rugby World Cups. But these events could have encroached on a few other sporting mega-events planned for the country, namely the FIFA World Cup in 2026, the Summer Olympics 2028 in Los Angeles and potentially the 2030 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake. So World Rugby has awarded the 2027 Games to Australia and has entered into “focused dialogue” with the United States for 2031 and 2033, meaning it is not working with any other bid committees for those dates.
While awaiting the decision in May, the organizers are busy evaluating potential venues. Brown said nearly 30 cities have applied to host, more than double the number needed. Men’s games are unlikely to be played in Utah if the United States wins the bid, although foreign teams may use the area as a base camp. The likelihood of the region hosting women’s games is much higher, he said.
After all this, does Brown still consider himself a footballer or has rugby won him over?
“If there’s a ball in play, I’ll help anyone,” he joked. “Even the steering wheel, I will help.”
In reality, however, Brown said he wouldn’t mind staying involved with USA Rugby during the World Cups. He is also willing to take on another project, as long as his goal is more than making money.
“I want to work with good people and I want to work on things that help a lot of people,” he said. “And I know that sounds a little corny, maybe. But as you get older, you know, that’s really the truth.
“Certainly, if there is an opportunity to do something new and different, I will definitely consider it.”
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