Cliff Notes is an opinion column written by Pat Clifton. Follow Pat on Twitter @Pat_Clifton.
Regretfully, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in person at PPL Park in Philadelphia, Pa. to watch the Eagles play their best game since at least the 2011 World Cup. I wasn’t there to witness the largest sold out crowd for a rugby match on American soil drown out the Maori All Black Haka with the chant of U-S-A.
I wish I was, and I wouldn’t have told you that the week before the game. I found the game difficult to get excited about – an American team on a seven-game losing streak and missing its European stars going up against another country’s B-team that’s expected to lick them pretty good. I’ve been to PPL Park, and it’s nothing to get excited about, either.
But what happened was, at the risk of sounding cliché, pretty magical. Unheralded players (Grant Harriman, Tai Tuisamoa), unproven college students or recent graduates (Cam Dolan, Tim Maupin) and previously discarded veterans (Peter Dahl, Zach Pangelinan) raised their play and almost knocked off the Maori All Blacks. They provided one hell of a show, and in the wake of the game, it appears the New Zealand Rugby Union was so impressed, the real All Blacks are headed Stateside in 2014.
(Skip to the 3:40 mark to see if the TODAY show's Hoda Kotb enjoyed the game)
“We’ve got to learn to entertain back in New Zealand. You guys are the best,” said Maori All Blacks coach Colin Cooper after the game. “I’ve been all over the world, and the way you entertain and get people packed in is outstanding. I think the USA really brought it, and if we hadn’t had the spirit that we had, we would have lost the game.”
There’s a lot to like about the game itself. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what happened outside the lines. What happened in the stands. I think it might be a watershed moment.
We’ve sold out stadiums before, most recently Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, SC Aug. 17 for the World Cup Qualifier against Canada, but Blackbaud holds just over 5,000. And we’ve put round about 18,500 butts (PPL’s capacity) in seats before – at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston the last two Junes for Ireland and Italy. But we’ve never sold out a bigger venue than PPL Park for a test. Never before have we had rugby people squirming to find a ticket the days and weeks leading up to a game. Seamus Kelly’s parents had to be secured tickets through the opposing team’s coaching staff.
|USA v Italy
|USA v Ireland
|USA v Tonga
|USA v Canada
|USA v Maori
|USA v Uruguay
|USA v Scotland
The three biggest crowds to take in an American test had been in Houston until Nov. 9. We didn’t know if the Eagles could draw as well anywhere else. Now we do.
The Eagles are 0-8 in 2013. Two of their closest games, though, were against their two toughest opponents. In June, the Eagles fell by three to Ireland. Saturday they lost by 10 to the Maori All Blacks, and the game was actually closer than that. The USA punched above its weight and would have more than covered the spread in both games, if there was indeed a spread. The correlation? Great home crowds. The two largest for tests, ever, in fact.
In addition to giving the home team a significant competitive bump, the crowd at PPL, and BBVA Compass before it, gave USA Rugby a massive payday. Turnstiles make the rugby world go round. The World Cup proceeds are what result in millions of dollars in grants being given to developing rugby countries, like the USA. That can happen here on a smaller scale.
If USA Rugby can bank on three to five paydays a year like the one they got Saturday, maybe they become less reliant on tax dollars. Or maybe our National Teams could become better funded and produce better results. Perhaps the governing body pumps more money into youth, high school, college or club rugby.
||Kansas City, Kan.
|FAU Football Stadium
||Boca Raton, Fla.
||Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
|SJ Earthquakes Stadium
||San Jose, Calif.
Between Ireland, Italy and the Maori All Blacks, I think we’ve learned a few things about big tests. One is that we don’t have to place a game based on the opponent. For a long time, there was a line of thought that if we’re going to play Ireland, we need to play the game in a city where there’s a significant amount of Irish expats. People thought we needed to play Italy in New York, and that when we play a Pacific Islander team, it needs to be in California or Utah.
We’ve now packed games against Italy and Ireland in a place you don’t connect with Italian or Irish migration – South Texas. And we showed up for a team from a Polynesian country on the East Coast.
We’ve learned weather isn’t of particular importance. Houston in June is miserably hot. Philadelphia in November can be the opposite.
We’ve learned people are showing up to see the American team, not necessarily the opponent. In Houston, the scene for the Ireland game gave me chills. Sure, there were green jerseys and flags throughout BBVA Compass, but they were overwhelmingly outnumbered. The U-S-A chant at PPL Park got me jacked enough I could’ve walked through a wall, and I only saw it on my computer days after the game.
Yes, all three of the games we’re talking about have been against Tier One teams. But we’ve not put the marketing effort behind a Tier Two contest. Instead of pumping up the RWC qualifier against Canada in June and trying to make it a massively attended match to remember, we put it in Blackbaud – a nice, but small and safe stadium - and USA Rugby, from a promotional standpoint, was already looking past that game and on to the November Maori match.
There have been flops, too, like the Churchill Cup games at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver, Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and Toyota Park in Chicago. Turns out, the Churchill Cup itself was a turd of a competition, and USA Rugby might not have been quite ready to put on a world-class test, which is certainly no longer the case.
Earlier this year the Eagles played in front of just over 7,000 fans at the Stub Hub Center in Carson, Calif. Not a great crowd, and not terrible, but the game lacked the marketing push of the more successful tests. There were just three months between the venue and date being announced and the actual game. The Maori and Ireland games had twice that, and there were five months between the announcement of the eventual sellout in Charleston and the kickoff. USA Rugby wanted to put the Tonga game at Rio Tinto in Salt Lake City, and after that in Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, but conflicts made them move.
The National Office does appear to be warming up to the idea of making a run at big crowds for all matches, not just Tier One tests, and starting a marketing campaign early. They’ve put the Uruguay game in Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta, which holds 10,000. That’s bigger than the Florida cricket stadium that hosted the Los Teros last time. And they’ve given themselves six months to market the game. The Scotland game in June at BBVA Compass should provide another sweet payday and an awesome home-field advantage for the good guys.
One more interesting coincidence with the big games and their locations is they’re not exactly in what you’d consider hotbeds of rugby. Many would offer up Northern California, Southern California, New England and Denver as places with higher rugby awareness or density than Texas or Philadelphia. Maybe there’s something to that.
Maybe because there’s rarely the chance for the rugby community to engage in great rugby events in places like Houston and Philadelphia (the CRC withstanding), it galvanizes the local rugby community and helps them grow excitement around the game. Southern Californians have wrapped their arms around USA Sevens, Northern Californians and Coloradans have had many college and club National Championships and international tests to attend. Charleston, on the other hand, doesn’t get many high level events, but when it does, it sells them out.
Maybe some of American rugby’s under-served markets need to be tested. Chicago deserves another shot at an international test, and what about Florida, the Pacific Northwest or other cities in the Upper Midwest, South and Heartland?
It’s an exciting time – people are filling legitimate stadiums to watch rugby. This new trend will only make rugby more marketable, profitable and popular. It’ll result in more television and mainstream media coverage. It’ll help lift our National Teams to new competitive heights, provide buzzing atmospheres and inspire America to fall in love with rugby. The Nov. 9 game against the Maori All Blacks is proof of all that.