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Rugby players from the USA marvel at the rugby club complexes – manicured pitches, changing rooms, and bar/restaurant accommodations – that they experience in the UK. The historic London-based suburban clubs like London Welsh (founded 1885) and Richmond (founded 1861) feature expansive settings for training, game day play, and post-game hospitality.
These clubhouses permeate throughout the British Isles and Ireland because they were established more than one-hundred year ago, when large acres of vacant land were available and affordable. To cite one example of land used for rugby from long ago, Rugby School in Warwickshire north of London features thirteen-pitches on the schoolgrounds.
In America, with the mid-nineteenth century beginnings of new rugby clubs, proliferating geometrically in the 1960s and 1970s, securing a playing field (often on permit from the municipality) remained the main goal. Bars or pubs with backrooms became the unofficial clubhouse for city-based clubs. Even today in 2017, it is the rare American rugby club that owns a building. Rarer still is the club with both clubhouse and neighboring pitch.
Back in 1981, the Chicago Lions RFC decided the club could only thrive if its owned a down town clubhouse, and embarked on an ambitious plan to buy a building. A follow up report appeared in the September 1984, issue of Rugby Magazine, narrating what had happened three-years after purchase. It was a cautionary tale of ambitious plans meeting financial reality.
The Club paid $80,000 for a fifty-year old building, consisting of a first-floor tavern and four upstairs apartments in a working-class area of the city. The bulk of the monies came from investors, with $5,000 from the Lions’ treasury. A separate corporation carried a $60,000 mortgage.
What the club soon realized was that it had to consider and operate the building as a small business, especially, the tavern. The initial thinking that the tavern would attract all the members after training session proved erroneous. Only some of the players, some of the time, traveled the lengthy two-miles to imbibe. Most of the more attractive singles bars were closer to the training site. The result, the tavern generated a negative cash flow, leading to monthly debt service that had to be met.
To meet the mortgage and operating costs, the Lions began to organize golf outings, Super Bowl parties, and other fund raising events, including the popular pig roasts (see picture) to raise monies. The 1984 pig roast after the Can/Am weekend generated forty-percent of total bar revenues in that fiscal year.
(Today, the clubhouse displays the trophies, plaques, posters, etc. from the Lions long tenure as a first-class rugby organization. The building proved that a clubhouse turns a rugby team into a rugby club.)