USA Rugby got some big event mojo during the month of June, thanks to two test matches and the Junior World Rugby Trophy.
Attendance figures aren’t yet available for the JWRT, but the event was deemed a success thanks in large part to the heavily Polynesian community in Utah. All four competition days featured strong crowds, with the Tongan community in Salt Lake City cheering for Tonga and the USA, and the USA fans and Canadian fans also vocal and in numbers.
The tournament is supposed to be small – the IRB wants to keep it small because it’s unlikely all the games would get big crowds, and as a result the whole thing could look bad. Murray City Park, which seats about 2,500, was close to full for every game day, and because of that the players played in a good atmosphere, and USA Rugby did not lose their shirts.
“If we’d have held it in Rio Tinto, that crowd would have sounded lost,” said USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville. “I thought it was a tremendous, passionate, educated rugby audience, and the team support was tremendous.”
Obviously it didn’t hurt that the USA did well, winning the tournament in dramatic fashion. Melville said USA Rugby also improved their standing in World Rugby vis-à-vis their reputation in being able to host an international rugby event. It wasn’t the 7s World Cup, for example, but it was something.
“Anything that goes well helps us,” he said.
One of the additional positives of the tournament was that the teams all were billeted in the same place, and got to know each other. This helped all the teams bond as fellow athletes.
Meanwhile, the USA hosted two test matches, in Glendale, Colo., and Houston. The Glendale game was essentially a sellout (some season ticket holders didn’t attend), meaning just under 4,000 attended the USA v. Georgia game. That was a modest profit-maker for USA Rugby, which has a deal with the City of Glendale that keeps up-front costs down.
The game at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston was a massive success for the organization. Attendance was over 17,200, almost double what was considered the minimum needed to make a profit. Using the newly-constructed soccer/rugby stadium was expensive, but it was worth it, as the largest crowd to ever see the USA 15s team play in the USA flooded the venue.
(The largest rugby crowd ever in the United States is considered to be the 30,000+ that watched the Saturday action at the 2012 USA 7s in Las Vegas. Some college rugby games in the early part of the 20th Century, when gridiron football was banned, drew large crowds, but they are not thought to have been more than 25,000.)
“What was great about it was that people came to see the Eagles play,” said Melville. “Often when we’ve had a big crowd it’s in part because a lot of people come to see the opposing team play. This time, it was people mostly coming to see the Eagles play, and you could tell from the atmosphere.”
Melville said the success of Houston was because several organizations came together – BBVA Compass Stadium, the Houston Sports Authority, the Texas Rugby Union, and Texas Youth Rugby. The TRU went so far as to move a 7s qualifier from Dallas to Houston.
“All of the organizations worked together and were committed,” Melville said. “What I think is good is that we showed we can have people come to see an international 15s match and we have the rugby fan base to support it.”
It’s always hard to guess how much money any of these events made USA Rugby, which usually has a yearly budget of $7.5 million to $10 million depending on the economy, international exchange rates, and sponsorship dollars.
But given the ticket prices for the event, which started at $15 (ticket prices for the USA games haven’t really risen in 20 years), and given the distribution of fans at the event, you might estimate the total take was about $300,00 to $400,000. If that is true (and really, it’s more of a guess on the part of RUGBYMag.com), and if you look at 9,000 as the break-even point, then USA Rugby might have netted $150,000 to $200,000 from that one game. Even half that would be a major windfall for an organization always scrounging for dollars.
Now what USA Rugby needs to do is build on that momentum. Hosting teams in the new Pac Rim competition next year, plus a Tier 1 touring side, should provide ample opportunity.