USA Rugby is expected to choose a venue soon for next June’s test match with Ireland, and one of the city’s with a good shot at getting the gig is Houston.
After having to wait almost 11 years between hosting USA tests, Houston may have finally proved that it can deliver the goods. Consider that when the Texas city hosted USA v. South Africa in December of 2001, the attendance was the biggest anyone could remember, and possibly ever, for an Eagle match. Over 13,000 reportedly paid to see the game at Robertson Stadium, with freebies and volunteers making the total more like 16,000.
(There was a big stink at the time about the estimated attendance, bolstered by some ill-advised guessing and the lack of understanding the difference between “paid” attendance and “total”attendance, all exacerbated by a need to rush the late-arrivers in, making counting attendance tough.)
In June at new BBVA Compass Stadium, 17,241 saw Italy play the Eagles, marking a new unofficial record for a USA game. (The most fans to see any rugby event in the USA was the over 30,000 which watched Day Two action at the USA 7s this past February.)
Paul Mabry, who headed up the host committees for both Houston games said a lot of lessons were learned in 2001 and applied to 2012.
“We used almost all volunteers in 2001, and basically you have to take a break from your job for four months,” said Mabry. “We knew we had to bring in the pros. We also learned that promotion is key. We’ve seen a lot of USA matches where they haven’t really promoted it, and got 5,000 fans. We were looking for 16,001. That was our goal.”
Meanwhile, some other things were happening. USA Rugby started speaking with the Houston Dynamo soccer team four years ago on how their proposed new stadium might also be used for rugby. Field dimensions were tossed around and USA Rugby pushed hard to get sleeves put in for rugby posts. That helped, because when time came for the stadium to be unveiled, the Dynamo were very enthusiastic to get a rugby game in there.
“The Houston Dynamo really spearheaded the promotion,” said Mabry. “But we worked with a lot of organizations – the [NFL’s] Houston Texas, the local sports authorities, the local Italian community, the local rugby community, and state organizations as well.”
The Dynamo got money from the State of Texas, which has funds earmarked to promote sporting events that bring out-of-state fans to the event. Certainly an international test match did that. Meanwhile the rugby community got engaged.
The West 7s Qualifier was moved from Dallas to Houston. The All Americans staged a camp and tryout in Houston the week leading up. The Texas Youth Rugby meetings were held in Houston, as well.
“Not only in Houston, but all across Texas, rugby people wanted this to succeed,” said Mabry. “And we found that people were rearranging their rugby schedules to be here.”
Meanwhile the professionals put together a radio ad campaign that ran on 17 stations.
There were some drawbacks to the events. It was hot, unseasonably hot even though the game was played at night. The local newspapers, showcasing again how stubborn newspaper editors can be, didn’t cover the match much at all. And the referee ruined what could have been a very close game.
But 17,000 people is a big number, and certainly would make Houston a likely candidate for another test match soon. USA Rugby CEO told RUGBYMag.com that Houston had earned the right to get one much, much sooner than ten years hence.
But Ireland? Mabry says Ireland would work.
“Houston is a very diverse city,” he said. “With the energy economy here, a huge medical center, and several consulates, we have a diverse population. And, of course, everybody’s Irish. We got a lot of South Africans flying in to see the game in 2001, but not many Italians this year. I think Irish fans will fly to Texas to see the game.”
In fact, Mabry, whose bold goal of 16,001 fans was exceeded by 1,240, said he is looking for as many as 25,000 if Houston hosts USA v. Ireland next June.
That’s an important figure, because BBVA Compass Stadium holds 22,000.
“What we’re seeing now is now only a competition between cities for a game, but competition between venues in the same city,” Mabry said.
The Houston Texas play in Reliant Stadium, which has a capacity of over 70,000. Buw they can block off the upper deck and play a game there. The stadium is domed, but has grass (the dome is not completely opaque), and would make it possible for the game to be played in the afternoon, thus making live coverage in Ireland more attractive for Irish television. In addition, the number of luxury suites at Reliant makes for a bigger payday for all concerned.
USA Rugby certainly made money on this year’s match in Houston, and so did the State of Texas.
Mabry thinks the next game will be even bigger.