New York (AFP) - A professional rugby union league is to be launched in North America for the first time next year, as officials aim to capitalise on the increasing popularity of the sport.
A statement from the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) said the six-team league would kick off in April 2016 with the blessing of USA Rugby and World Rugby, the sport's international governing body.
It will be the first time the sport has had a professional league in the region, where rugby is barely noticeable in a sporting landscape dominated by American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey.
The teams would be based in major metropolitan areas around the northeast United States, the Rocky Mountains and California, a statement said.
Teams from Canada would be added to an expanded competition in 2017.
"As the fastest growing team sport in the USA, it is the time to have a sanctioned professional competition," USA Rugby chairman Bob Latham said.
"We are very happy to partner with PRO Rugby in taking this step to popularize the game, to inspire Americans to fall in love with rugby, and to show the rugby world what American players can do."
The league's inaugural season will be bankrolled by Doug Schoninger, a New York businessman with a background in finance who is PRO Rugby's chief executive.
"At this point the league's first season is fully funded. It's all coming from me," Schoninger told AFP. He declined to give a figure for the total cost of the new venture's first season.
Schoninger said the six clubs embarking in the new league would be fully owned by PRO Rugby in a single-entity structure.
Each side would have around 25-30 players per roster while maintaining a quota of five non-North American players per squad.
"Rugby is a natural fit for our country," Schoninger said.
"Participation and interest in the sport is at an all-time high and the demand for a professional competition is clear."
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper welcomed the announcement.
"We welcome North American teams into the international rugby family," Gosper said in a statement. "With PRO Rugby in place, US and Canadian players will be able to train year round and play in elite competition, something that has been sorely missing from rugby development in North America."
Rugby has been played in the United States for more than a century and the USA won the gold medal at the 1920 and 1924 Olympics.
It has increased in popularity in recent years with the men's seven-a-side team rapidly becoming a force on the international sevens circuit.
Chicago's Soldier Field hosted international matches involving the New Zealand All Blacks in 2014 and Australia in early September.
The English Premiership announced plans last month to stage a regular season league match between London Irish and Saracens in New York in March.