You are here

What it’s like to go to a rugby game. Going to a rugby game in 1997 was classically amateur. Almost every venue was a field or park somewhere. Posts were trucked in on the day, and fields lined hastily. Being a fan on the sidelines meant standing in mud or dust, and it means trying to look over or (in my case) through and around bigger guys crowing the sideline.






No tickets to buy. No food to buy. Drinks? Sure, if you bring your own cooler of beer (which many did). Fans where T-shirts that say things like “If you don’t play the game, don’t wear the shirt.” Not a place where a stranger felt included.

Players do their thing on the field, sometimes well, sometimes with enormous effort. Some seem more interested in singing an offensive song or getting into the beer later on. The event itself, even if the game is fun, is not designed for the fan.

Today. Much of all that still goes on, although the pitchside beer and the you’re-not-one-of-us T-shirts are gone. Many games are still played on a patch of grass (or field turf). But more often than not, that patch of grass now has rugby linings on it all season long. The pitch has sleeves for your new and straight goalposts.

Many venues charge admission and run concessions. An increasing number of clubs now own or operate their own fields, often with clubhouses where players can get a shower after the game. Teams line up for the National Anthem. Fans have a place to sit – embankments, bleachers. There are scoreboards, matching kit. Game start on time.

This is one of the small but real victories of our time. It could be better, but what we have now is way, way better than things used to be. What I’d tell my 1997 self is, keep up the fight. Don’t let good clubs get away with shoddy venues. It’s something I intend to be more vigilant of in the future.

USA Rugby, for their part, has been very up and down when it comes to venues. In 1997, the Eagles were playing most of their games at the bare-bones Boxer Stadium in Balboa Park in San Francisco. The all-bench stadium had a capacity of about 5,500, but was cheap to use, and crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 (visits from Tonga and Samoa garnered the biggest attendance) drew modest profits for the organization.

Of course, the USA men’s national team also had a regular, coherent competition to play in. The Pacific Rim Championship survived as a league from 1996 through 2000 (and then was changed before dying completely). At least the fans knew what they were coming to see.

After the Eagles set a record with their December, 2001 game against South Africa in Houston, moves were made to host games in larger stadia. Sometimes the attendance was strong – against Ireland in Santa Clara in 2009. Sometimes it was disappointing. (Oddly, nine months after that Springbok game, 1,300 showed up at Boxer Stadium on a Friday evening for a World Cup Qualifier …)

These days the go-to venue is Infinity Park in Glendale. A purpose-build rugby stadium sponsored by the City of Glendale, Colo., Infinity Park has been an outstanding location for national championships and all-star matches. As a test match venue, it’s great for a neutral site (such as the now defunct Churchill Cup) because it was small enough to avoid looking cavernous when empty (as opposed to Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton or Twickenham, two other Churchill Cup venues).

As a site for the USA national team Infinity is very good – modern, with many amenities, and easy to get to. But it also represents a return to the old days; a small-capacity venue where you won’t lose your shirt, rather than a larger venue with great financial potential.

Meanwhile, in other areas American rugby is setting personal bests. The 2011 USA 7s in Las Vegas was the most-attended rugby event in American history (save, possibly, by some Cal, Stanford and UCLA games in 1906-1914, when football was banned). In Las Vegas, the crowds averaged 25,000 for the two days, about twice the best showing for the Eagles 15s team.

Three months later, over 10,000 paid to watch the collegiate premier final between Cal and BYU at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. That, too, was a college rugby best (as near as we can tell), at least in the last 100 years. And two weeks after that, over 10,000 again showed up to watch the USA 7s Collegiate Rugby Championships 7s invitational on day one, adding about 7,000 on day two. That was, far and away, the most attendance for any non-international 7s event.

Good venues, good locations, compelling competitions, and private promotions are usually what makes these events grow. Partnering with organizations that are experienced in making events work (and yes, sometimes that would mean RUGBYMag.com’s partner in business, USA 7s LLC), would benefit USA Rugby.

 

In the end I’d take 2011 over 1997. I would accept the confusion over where and for what the Eagles play in return for the kinds of events we see on the domestic level. When college games regularly draw several thousand fans (and not just in select locations), and club games start to bring in fans, too, then you’re building a following for the game. With those steps forward, crowds at international events will come, too.

Not even counting the Eagles, USA 7s, and CRC 7s, in 2011 I attended high school, college, college 7s, club, and club 7s events where fans were expected to pay to get in, and fans sat in bleachers (or nicer seats than that) and saw a real sporting event. That struck me as something supremely positive about the game. And it’s part of the game we need to keep improving.