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The state of California gets a lot. No, I’m not talking about the beaches, celebrities or enviable weather. In terms of major rugby events, California gets plenty.
Since their first-ever match in 1976, the Eagles have played 33 full tests in the Golden State. That’s more than the next five states combined – Illinois (8), Colorado (7), Texas (7), New York (4), Georgia (3) and Florida (3).
It makes sense that California hosts more than any other state – it’s the most populated in the country, it’s home to more rugby clubs than any other, and it has a long tradition in the game. The 1920 and 1924 Olympic teams were practically all Californian, and some of the most-attended rugby matches in American history might well be those between Cal and Stanford in the early 1900s when football was put on the shelf amid safety concerns and rugby subbed in for the ‘Big Game’.
Those 33 tests played inside the state’s borders are all of the 15s variety. Some have been well attended – the 10,000-person sellout of Santa Clara’s soccer stadium in 2009 for a match with Ireland being the gold standard, and the 5,000-6,000 who sat in a cavernous 27,000-seat LA Galaxy stadium in 2013 and 2014 to watch the Eagles play Tonga and Japan, respectively, being the opposite.
However, the state’s reputation of supporting the game of 7s is still to be determined. Sure, the club championships have been held in San Francisco more than any other place, but we’re talking international rugby here. The USA Sevens was contested in California from 2004-2009, after which it moved to Las Vegas.
Since the tournament was bought out by United World Sports in 2005, the attendance of USA Sevens has more than doubled. That’s correlated with the move out of California – in 2009 in San Diego, the tournament’s last year in California, it drew 37,000 fans total. This year in Nevada, nearly that many people showed up on Saturday alone.
Big time 7s will again be washing up on the shores of California in waves soon, though, beginning in a couple of weeks with the inaugural Silicon Valley 7s, when 12 of the best teams in the world take the field at Avaya Stadium in San Jose. This will bring the likes of New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga back to California for the first time since USA Sevens relocated to Sin City.
Then it’s the Sevens World Cup next summer, marking the first time one of World Rugby’s coveted quadrennial tournaments is held in America. This will be a major spectacle – in the first week of ticket sales, more than 13,000 three-day passes were sold. That all but assures the tournament will bounce back from a depressing showing in terms of attendance in Russia in 2013.
In making the changes necessary to host an event like this, USA Rugby had to take some risks, like creating for-profit arm Rugby International Marketing. One of the main motivations for doing so was trying to prove there’s a market for the sport in America in the hopes of garnering a future 15s World Cup, which would be a presumed financial windfall.
After the rugby world’s eyes avert following the World Cup, they’ll refocus Stateside in short order for the installment of Super 7s, a new professional platform organized by UWS, the company behind USA 7s, the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, Silicon Valley 7s and this publication. A six-city barnstorming tour will be the American public’s introduction to the format, and while the opening venue hasn’t been announced just yet, that tour will start and include at least one stop in California.
Then there’s two more big 7s events that could come to the Golden State soon. The Olympics are slated to return to Los Angeles in 2028. That’s a long way away, to be sure, and rugby is only guaranteed to be included in the Games through Paris 2024, but 7s was well presented and accepted in its Rio debut, and there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the chances of it being on the menu in Los Angeles.
The other potential rugby event needs a disclaimer – William Tatham, Jr. has been saying he’s bringing the ‘world’s richest 7s tournament’ to Los Angeles for a long time. Since 2005, he’s held the exclusive sanctioning rights from USA Rugby to present professional 7s. His idea has become putting on a tournament with a $1 million purse. In 12 years, he’s said a lot and done very little.
We’ve covered Tatham’s failures thoroughly in the past, and extending his sanctioning rights through 2024 was one of the last things former USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville checked off his to-do list before bolting for the RFU.
There were parameters put into that extension agreement to assure he didn’t just hoard the rights further, one of which was a large six-figure payment to USA Rugby that was due earlier this year. It was paid. Now, in order to hold onto the sanctioning rights he’s paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for over the years, he has to actually get a product on the field in 2018. So, either he’ll do that, or the field will be cleared for someone else to come in and develop professional 7s in its more traditional form. Either way, it's a win for the rugby community.
Super 7s, given it’s a completely new version of the game, isn’t beholden to Tatham’s agreement with USA Rugby. So, one way or another, just in the next 12 months alone, there will be a brand new, exciting, international rugby tournament being staged by the owners and operators of USA 7s, the actual 7s World Cup, and the first-ever professional 7s venture in the world, all in the state of California. And there’s a possibility of the second-ever professional 7s foray, and the Holy Grail – the Olympics – coming to California, too.
All of these developments are potential game changers. The World Cup, if pulled off successfully, has the chance to change the game in American forever. The brains behind it hope it will have a ripple effect like the ’94 and ’99 FIFA World Cups did on American soccer.
Silicon Valley can give a cash-strapped union, USA Rugby, an incredibly valuable annual home fixture. This is big not just because it affords head coach Mike Friday and his team the chance to play real minutes before the World Series, but because it’s an added opportunity for the stars of the team to gain exposure to potential fans and sponsors, inching them closer to household names. More people know who Perry Baker is than know the name Mike MacDonald. In time, it could be a 7s player on the Wheaties box.
Super 7s, if successful, will be the first professional 7s league in the world, further exposing the Olympic version of the game to the general population, and vice versa. It would also provide unparalleled coaching and playing opportunities, potentially setting up USA Rugby for life after Friday and Baker, while enabling a real development opportunity for players somewhere between playing in Dubai and in a park in Anywhere, USA. Right now that crucial middleground is hard to come by for wannabe Eagles.
And the 2028 Olympics – what a golden opportunity for our community. Rio was a massive opportunity and rugby is just now reaping those benefits. The 2020 and 2024 Games might be even more impactful, given they’re being played in rugby-aware countries. But imagine what household names the next Perry Baker, next Carlin Isles and next Danny Barrett will become if they get to compete, and they go well, on sport’s biggest stage here in the USA. Matthew McConaughey will have to wait in line to hang out with them.
These are big opportunities headed your way, California, and the future of American rugby kind of depends on them being capitalized on. If Silicon Valley is amazing, it will build hype and awareness around the sport ahead of the World Cup. If that’s successful, now the buzz has morphed into a platform from which the professional sector of 7s can launch, and if kids in this country can grow up watching 7s on TV in the Olympics and elsewhere, with even a snowball’s chance in Sacramento at getting paid to play it someday, come 2028, the Eagles just might get to stand on the tallest podium in Los Angeles.
So, West Coast, show us that when it comes to supporting the game, in this case 7s specifically, you’re the best coast. Buy your tickets. Show up. Have the time of your life. And the rest will take care of itself, like the next Maka Unufe catching your excitement over an Eagle try on a screen somewhere.