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The professional era of American rugby was ushered in over the weekend, as Denver met Ohio at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. and Sacramento hosted San Francisco at Bonney Field. League officials are grinning after a stellar opening showcase.
PRO Rugby’s broadcast of the California tilt touted that roughly 8,000 paid to watch the league’s inaugural weekend – about 2,300 in snow-buried Denver (though admittedly, everyone who purchased a ticket may not have braved the blizzard) and 3,400 in sunny Sacramento. The games were nail biters, both of which saw the home team roar back from second-half deficits to win in dramatic fashion. Denver's Will Magie slotted a penalty in overtime to clutch a 16-13 win, and Sacramento surged late to down San Francisco 37-25.
By just about every measure, the first act was a success. The fact that a game was played at all in Denver, where nearly four feet of snow fell over the weekend, is a win in and of itself.
“Two good, competitive games, which is what we’re looking for,” said PRO director of rugby Steve Lewis, who was on hand at Infinity Park. “That Glendale grounds crew did a fantastic job getting that place available, and despite the sloppy conditions it was really good to see.
“I couldn’t have scripted that Denver game better. I have no dog in the fight in terms of our teams, but to have the home team come back in the last 10 minutes and then go to overtime and win with a kick from the sideline is pretty special.”
The California match showcased some wide open rugby, with San Francisco and Sacramento both stringing together highlight-worthy reels of play, Harry Bennett’s ballsy drop goal from the touch line to extend Sacramento’s lead late in the game chief among them. And though the snow-soaked pitch in Colorado may have slogged the game down a bit, Lewis was pleased with the entertainment value.
“I was very impressed. Both teams played with intent. They didn’t just default to sort of positional and kick play,” he said. “Both teams ran the ball. Physicality was way up from standard club play. Ruck contests were pretty brutal, and a lot of talent on both sides, so it was great to see.”
While the product on the field didn’t disappoint, and the broadcast went well enough, the real victory for the league was the turnout. When Lewis trekked his way through the snow to Infinity Park Saturday, there was no telling who, if anyone, would follow behind. A whole lot did.
In Sacramento, there were issues with pre-sales, as complaints trickled in about added costs when buying tickets in advance. Bonney Field’s exclusive ticket go-through is Ticketmaster, which tacks on some hefty fees at purchase time. That issue, while outside the league’s control, meant a large walk-up crowd would have to assemble to meet expectations. It did.
“It was a step in the unknown. The whole thing is a step in the unknown,” said Lewis. “Spectator response is the same – how would people react?
After the fact, Lewis says he’s been overwhelmed by the positivity of the feedback.
“I think having played these first two games and demonstrated that it’s happening, most people are pretty much supportive and on board,” he said. “People can see the players enjoying it, fans enjoying it. I think we’ve crossed that sort of perception hurdle about a month ago and playing these two games kid of confirms that.”
The second act comes Sunday, when Sacramento travels to San Diego and San Francisco hosts Denver.