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No one knows exactly where the tipping point is, but we’re getting closer to finding out. Someday, enough people will have paid to attend rugby games, tournaments and events to cause the professionalization of rugby in America. What that professionalization will look like isn’t clear, either. I’ll get to that.
But this summer will be a great litmus test for America’s ability to support professionalization. Between five different major events from the second weekend of June through the first weekend of September, there are 129,242 seats to fill.
It all starts with the NACRA 7s Championship, North America’s Olympic qualifier, June 13-14 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. That stadium holds 10,000, and it’s a two-day event.
Then the 15s National Team has four domestic tests over the summer, with each being held in a venue that holds more than 10,000 seats, ranging from the 11,242-seat Bonney Field in Sacramento, which sold out for a match with Canada last year, and the 61,500-seat Soldier Field, which sold out for the All Blacks game in November.
In 2012 USA Rugby dipped its toe in the massive event business for the first time since licensing its 7s World Series stop to United World Sports by putting the Eagles match with Italy at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. It was a success, setting a record for attendance at a domestic test.
In 2013, the national governing body went a bit further, bringing Ireland to BBVA and tapping Philadelphia’s PPL Park for a match with the New Zealand Maori. Both were successful, the former breaking the record from the Italy match and the latter selling out. The test against Tonga that year at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. was, however, a commercial dud.
In 2014, USA Rugby took an even bigger risk. This time it was Scotland at BBVA – another great success. Japan in Carson – another failure (which that stadium has proven to be time and time again for rugby). Canada in Sacramento – sell out. And of course we know how the biggest risk of all went in Chicago.
All that added up to a total of 97,843 butts in seats for major rugby events in a condensed window. Mix in the Varsity Cup, Collegiate Rugby Championship and USA Sevens, and 2014 saw 193,702 people attend commercial rugby events in major stadiums.
The potential in 2015 is even greater. With the Varsity Cup pulling in over 9,000 and USA 7s having yet another record-breaking year, and accounting for even a modest climb in attendance for the Penn Mutual CRC, it’s reasonably conceivable the number could ascend to over 230,000 in 2015.
That’d be a nearly-20-percent increase from year to year. If the National Rugby Football League’s Independence Cup, slated for 68,532-seat Lincoln Financial Field Aug. 8, actually happens, an astronomical rise in commercial rugby attendance could be feasible. Now we’re talking about real money.
It was announced this week that the 2018 7s World Cup will be held in the Bay Area. Rugby attendance numbers from 2013-on suggest America can both support a multi-day event like the 7s World Cup and fill venues the sizes of AT&T Park and Avaya Stadium, where it will be contested. If that tournament goes well, perhaps a future 15s World Cup is within reach for the USA.
But before then, and even perhaps before 2018, a critical mass of people shelling out significant cash to see rugby stateside could prompt professionalization. I said I’d get to what that might look like. When the syllable “pro” is uttered in regards to rugby, everyone’s mind goes straight to a full-on league, where players, coaches and front office people receive salaries.
There are steps between where we are now and that potential reality. First, professionalization might look like the young people representing the United States in the matches and events turning a profit being compensated appropriately.
The cost of being an Eagle has long been a setback for the on-field success of Team USA – players having to drop jobs for tours and keep low-paying hourly jobs so they can attend camps and be available for assemblies. Per diems aren’t great, sometimes bonuses and paychecks are delivered quicker than others, and let’s not forget entirely the cost of participating in age-grade rugby.
Eagles need better compensation. For the 7s teams, that means significantly more than the barely-making-it salaries they have now. For the 15s teams, it means higher per diems and bigger bonuses, and maybe even training contracts, especially for those domestic Eagles who matter as much on game day as their teammates playing for pay overseas.
That’s what the direct result of months like those USA Rugby might be about to enjoy preceded by a watershed 2014 should be. The cumulative influence of the rise in rugby attendance should pull in more lucrative sponsorships and endorsements for the current lineup of events. And...hopefully...one day, attract enough serious investors to make the dream of a professional domestic competition a reality.