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Technically, Saturday marked the second “The Rugby Weekend”. The first time USA Rugby used the moniker to promote a home test was 2016, when Ireland upset New Zealand at Soldier Field and the Eagles fell to the Maori at Toyota Park. But if you define The Rugby Weekend as anytime you welcome a New Zealand team to play in Chicago and rent Soldier Field with a lot of fanfare, Saturday marked the third occasion.
The event must be looked at through two lenses. On one hand, its brought the fabled All Blacks brand to our shores on numerous occasions, put more than 170,000 butts in seats for top-level rugby in one of America’s iconic sporting cities and gotten the game on national television. On the other hand, the USA is a combined 0-5, having been outscored 254-41.
That dichotomy was on full display over the weekend, as the USA women were bludgeoned Saturday 67-6 and the men 59-22. This time the games didn’t have a telecast, but an announced 30,051 piled into Soldier Field to watch the Eagles take their lumps on the big stage.
The first time New Zealand was welcomed to the Windy City was 2014, when the All Blacks beat the Eagles 74-6 in front of a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field. That specific game, like The Rugby Weekend in general, must also be looked at through two lenses. On one hand, it was a watershed event. The previous high mark for attendance at a home test was 20,181. The ’14 game tripled that, putting 61,500 fans through the turnstiles. It was a celebration of rugby in America, and a great party.
There’s little doubt some of the recent advances in the domestic landscape must be credited at least partially to the shattered attendance record. Images of that ’14 sellout made their way around the globe, conjuring delusions of grandeur. Without the gate receipt shared ‘round the world, we likely never have PRO or Major League Rugby.
Without the Soldier Field sellout, RIM may never have been able to raise $7 million. Despite the fact that $7 million would end up squandered, just raising it signaled the perception of rugby in America had changed.
We probably never host the Rugby World Cup Sevens, either, without the ’14 sellout, and the cynic could argue American rugby would be better off, governed by Americans with American interests. Looking back, that ’14 game was the first big risk in a long line of many for the union. Unfortunately, it was just about the only one to not blow up in its face.
Ultimately, what’s the point of The Rugby Weekend? Home tests are designed to make the union money, so there’s the financial aspect. They should garner USA Rugby, the Eagles and rugby in general, positive exposure. And they should make sense for the national team(s) from a competitive standpoint.
Financially, we don’t know the particulars. Reportedly, Ireland got a $1 million payday for beating up on Italy Saturday. We know that’s what the All Blacks got in 2014 and that South Africa and Wales were supposed to be paid in the same neighborhood for their summer friendly in Washington, D.C. So the report doesn’t seem far-fetched. Presumably, Italy wouldn’t have played for free, either, adding to the overhead.
Additionally, USA Rugby contracts The Legacy Agency for The Rugby Weekend, the same group that helped pull off the ’14 sellout. After the visiting teams, Soldier Field and TLA take their cut, there can’t be much money left on the bone for USA Rugby. It’s entirely possible Saturday will go down as a loss for the already-indebted national governing body. Given the RWC 7s and Wales/South Africa haven’t been reconciled yet, we won’t know Saturday’s price tag for some time, if ever.
In 2016, with Soldier Field selling out for New Zealand versus Ireland and a great crowd at Toyota Park for the Moari game, it’s hard to imagine USA Rugby not making money. In 2014, it certainly would have, but the overhead was considerable, too, so it was far from a financial windfall.
In three years, USA Rugby has probably made a little money once (’14), lost at least a little money once (’18), and did fairly well for itself once (’16).
From an exposure standpoint, The Rugby Weekend's put the Eagles live on television once, when they were pantsed 74-6 by New Zealand, leaving viewers with little to conclude other than the Eagles aren't very good. Ireland’s historic upset of New Zealand was on NBC Sports Network, providing an incredible showcase for the sport itself, but not the Eagles. The USA’s ’16 game against the Maoris was streamed on The Rugby Channel, and Saturday all games were streamed live on Flo.
So, as far as broadcast exposure is concerned, one negative showing and one positive showing, though the positive one had nothing to do with the Eagles.
Competitively speaking, there’s no argument to be made. Playing All Blacks of any flavor outside the test window makes no sense, because the USA is guaranteed to be significantly hampered by the lack of overseas pros. The coaches hate it. Why routinely play the best when you’re at your worst and then tell everyone to come and watch?
Imagine that scenario with your local club. You see a promising recruit at the gym, or you meet a potential sponsor or fan out and about, and you tell them all you have a match this weekend, that you’re going to get creamed, and then hope that if they even bother to show up, the experience of watching you get run over convinces them to join or support your club? Good luck with that pitch.
The argument isn’t that we shouldn’t play the All Blacks or the Maoris. Facing the haka has to be on every rugby player’s bucket list. Those experiences are why the game is played.
And we shouldn’t back down from competition. There are positive takeaways from losses. There are positive takeaways from Saturday. As women's head coach Rob Cain said after the slaughter, it will never get harder for his dozen or so debutants than it was Saturday. They’ll never be in a tougher situation, under more pressure. They’re better for the experience.
But that doesn’t mean we should go out of our way and bend over backwards to get our butts kicked. Let’s play the Maoris every year, but let’s do it when we have our full assault of players and can put our best foot forward.
The concept of The Rugby Weekend is spot on – build an annual event fans can schedule around and equity with a venue and city to make a greater impact and leave a legacy. It can be USA Rugby’s homecoming for 15s, so to speak. It’s where you meet up with your mates every year.
Right now, we’re scheduling the best team in the world for our homecoming game and inviting everyone to come watch us get pounded by an embarrassing score line, all the while not getting very much attention or money for the effort.
The problem is, the only team that’s proven capable of filling Soldier Field is New Zealand. When Ireland plays the All Blacks it’s a sellout. When Ireland plays Italy, even with the boost of two American matches, cut the crowd in half. When Ireland plays the USA, take another 8,000 or so fans away, and you get the same general crowd as Italy, Scotland or Australia have drawn against the Eagles.
The Rugby Weekend in its current form doesn’t produce enough money or attention, unless the All Blacks proper are involved, to make sense. Assuming getting them here annually isn’t in the cards, USA Rugby would be wise to pivot to a smaller venue for the extra November test or refocus its marketing efforts toward a home test in the spring or summer.
The Eagle brand is important. It's USA Rugby's most valuable asset, and it needs to be better looked after. If we're going to let it get trampled on for money, it needs to be a lot more money. If we're going to put the brand on the line for exposure, we need to do it with a reasonable expectation of garnering positive exposure (read as being competitive). As it stands, we're letting the badge get drug through the mud for pennies on the dollar and no hope of positive exposure. At least it was a good party.