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Saturday, for the second year in a row, the United States National Team played in a depressingly empty StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. 5,100 showed up to watch the Eagles fall 37-29 to Japan on the weekend, and last June 6,000 showed up to watch them lose to Tonga.
The StubHub Center holds 30,510, and making the 17-percent-full stadium look anything other than deserted was an impossible task for the Universal Sports broadcast team. The game was exciting from start to finish, even if the result was less than ideal, but because no one was there, the television product was subpar.
The Eagles are at a point where they should never be playing in a stadium less than half full, even if their opponent isn’t a big draw. In Houston, 17,214 saw the USA play Italy in 2012, 20,181 saw them play Ireland in 2013, and two weeks ago 20,001 saw them play Scotland. Last fall, 18,500 saw them give the New Zealand Maori a tough game. Granted, all those contests were against marquis opponents.
But the Eagles have drawn decent crowds for second-tier opponents, too. In March, 6,197 filed into Fifth Third Bank Stadium, which has a capacity of 8,318 for soccer and rugby, to watch the Eagles face Uruguay. Last summer, an over-capacity crowd of 5,258 watched the Eagles play Canada at Charleston, SC’s Blackbaud Stadium.
This weekend, The Eagles will play in the second-ever sporting event at brand-new Bonney Field in Sacramento. The stadium’s anchor tenant, the Sacramento Republic soccer team, christens the turf Friday. Bonney Field’s built to hold 8,000. If Northern California even just matches Southern California with 5,100 in attendance, it’ll be a markedly better atmosphere and television product, and likely a better payday for USA Rugby.
USA Rugby is swinging for the fences by putting the November All Blacks game at Chicago’s Soldier Field, which holds over 60,000. That’s fine. If it turns out to be a mistake, at least it’s an aggressive mistake with a potentially large payoff that, at the very least, is going to get media attention. If there are two things USA Rugby needs more of it’s mainstream media exposure and revenue from its events.
But continually putting games in a cavernous StubHub Center with little-to-no marketing effort is not an aggressive mistake, it’s a silly one. Posting a video of Tai Tuisamoa asking SoCal fans to come out for the game and sending a few emails does not constitute a marketing campaign. If you don’t have the resources to market properly, don’t book a big venue.
And quit thinking California is the answer. No state has hosted more Eagle tests than the Golden State the last 20 years, yet only the sixth-largest crowd in that time has been registered there. You could add up the attendance of the last three tests in California, including the 2009 match against Ireland, and you still come up short of the 2013 attendance in Houston for the Irish.
Yes, there is a large rugby-playing population in California, both Southern and Northern. But it’s been proven that doesn’t equal big crowds – same case for Chicago and the Northeast corridor through the first decade of the century. No one would argue there’s more rugby people in Georgia or South Carolina than SoCal, NorCal, Chicago or the Northeast corridor, but those states have produced fuller stadiums and similar attendance numbers.
Maybe the underserved parts of the country, the ones that haven’t had test after test, the ones that don’t regularly host huge sporting events, would be less likely to take an Eagle test for granted.