Mother Nature played her part during the Collegiate Rugby Championship's (CRC) event launch yesterday, treating representatives from NBC, USA 7s and its new partners in Chester, Pa., to warm temperatures and bright skies. Perhaps the weather was an omen of good things to come; then again, plenty of tangible indicators suggest that the event's success is likely.
It was evident that CRC partners were happy to relocate the event to Philadelphia, a passionate sports town with a healthy rugby base.
"We wanted to bring the event to Philadelphia last year," Exec. VP of NBC Sports Jon Miller said, "but the stadium wasn't ready in time, so we cut our teeth in Columbus. I liken it to opening a Broadway show in Albany.
"Many cities submitted very attractive proposals for the 2011 event - Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City," Miller continued, "but we zeroed in on Philadelphia, an area that has the second largest concentration of rugby players in the country.
"We want this region to become the home for the event," Miller continued, "the way Daytona is for the Daytona 500." Miller's palpable enthusiasm drove his belief that the CRC will achieve the same recognition as the Ryder Cup and the NHL's Winter Classic, two once low-profile events that NBC Sports launched into popularity.
And one can already see how NBC Sports is working toward that level of fame for rugby. Miller impressed attendees inside the five-month-old PPL Park (home to the Philadelphia Union) when he debuted an advert on the stadium Jumbotron. Producers who promote the NFL and college football, as well as last June's inaugural CRC (formerly the Collegiate Championship Invitational 7s), have developed a sizzling campaign:
Echoing throughout the 16,000-seat stadium, a throaty narrator opened: "The toughest sport ...," as footage of Ohio State's Nate Ebner stiff-arming a defender during last summer's 7s championship flashed across the screen; "... in the toughest city ...," while Utah's Thretton Palamo galloped toward the try zone. The adrenalined preview continued with all of the high-stepping, dump-tackling moves with which we're familiar, but its professional presentation, which rugby so rarely sees in the USA, lent the validation that only titans like NBC can bring to the table. And the result had everyone in the stands smiling.
Philadelphia-based Comcast-Spectacor is heading the marketing efforts and will broadcast promos that aren't simply concerned with revving up living rooms; rather, the ads aim to enlighten viewers.
"We're going to be educating the public with rules-based promotions during the next several months," Miller said, "so that when they show up to the event, they understand the game and realize it's not that complicated."
USA 7s and NBC lacked the lead time to engage the hometown crowd for the first event in Columbus. The result was a disappointing turnout, exacerbated by the inclement weather, to marr an otherwise successful tournament.
But will Philadelphia embrace the event? Early signs are promising, as demonstrated by former NFLer and current NBC 10 sports director Vai Sikahema's participation. The beloved former Philadelphia Eagle booted up with Temple during a 7s demo against Penn State. Sikahema made the most of his first reception, dancing toward the tryline (nevermind a couple of penalties) and audibly hollering with glee. Hopefully his fan base will regard the sport with as much enthusiasm.
There are some interesting evolutions to the event itself, which should further engage the rugby community outside of the densely populated Eastern Pennsylvania union. Due to popular demand, the 16th team slot will be up for grabs. Held during the Las Vegas Invitational (Feb. 10-12, www.lvirugby.com), the CRC will host a qualifier open to any American collegiate team, the winner of which will play at the Philadelphia event.
Also joining the lineup is an eight-team women's bracket. "It's not lost on us that women's 7s is an Olympic sport as well," said USA 7s VP of Operations Donal Walsh. Penn State coach Pete Steinberg is leading the effort and approaching it from a high performance point of view. The teams will play on Friday off site, be reseeded for Saturday, and then join the men at PPL Park for the rest of the competition.
There's plenty of reason to expect that the second USA 7s' Collegiate Rugby Championship will outstrip the preceding event, now that ample time, a receptive audience and supportive union are backing the corporate entities at play.
Tickets go on sale November 15. Learn more at http://usasevenscrc.com.