17,214 fans were on hand for the Eagles 30-10 loss to Italy Saturday at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston.
That number shatters an unofficial record of about 13,000 who took in the Eagles’ 43-20 loss to South Africa Dec. 1, 2001 at Robertson Stadium in Houston.
“The atmosphere here was absolutely electric. It was like being overseas. It’s like everybody always talks about that rugby’s not really catching on here, we don’t get the crowds and everything else, but tonight it definitely felt like there were 17,000 people out there from America,” said Eagle scrumhalf Mike Petri.
“It’s really awesome and really great to see the sport growing and to see so many young kids out here, especially, supporting us.”
Captain Todd Clever, who has played in test matches with less than 2,000 in attendance, also relished the chance to play in front of a robust crowd.
“Houston’s been a great host for us,” he said. “We knew we were going to come into a great environment and the crowd was great and hopefully the next stop we play, they can watch us just like Houston. It was fantastic.”
The game is a milestone for USA Rugby, and it, we should all hope, proves that people will come out to a test match given it’s held in a quality stadium against an attractive opponent. It also busts the myth that teams should be hosted in cities where they have a large expatriate population. (Houston does boast a large South African expatriate community, but isn’t particularly known for housing a lot of Italians.)
Next year the Eagles will host Ireland, and the year after Scotland. An article in The Guardian says USA Rugby is pondering hosting one or both of those games in an NFL-sized stadium. USA Rugby actually considered putting the Italy match in Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, but eventually went with the home of the MLS’s Houston Dynamos.
If USA Rugby can consistently put 17,000-plus people in a stadium for home test matches, not only does it create a tangible home-field advantage for the Eagles, but a viable revenue stream.