Thursday, January 3, 2013
Visiting Fiji, Tonga Offer U.S.A. Rugby Options, Possible Profit
Yesterday’s strong hint that Fiji (and possibly Tonga) will be coming to the U.S. and Canada is great news for fans and for rugby in America. Not only will fans be treated to a great summer of rugby featuring Ireland and two top Pacific Islands teams, but it will also see a home and away match with Canada in World Cup qualifying. If everything plays out as expected, that means the U.S. will host four matches on home soil for the first time in years. For U.S.A. Rugby, that means the adding expenditure of putting on four matches, but it also represents the prospect of pulling in four home gates. For a program that has struggling to generate funds from hosting matches, this could be a huge boost.
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In retrospect the huge crowd that turned out to watch the U.S. take on Italy last year in Houston shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. The match was played in an area that has proven to support rugby, it was played in a brand new stadium, and it featured a world-class opponent. While the new stadium factor won’t be in effect this year, there is no reason to believe that they U.S. can’t match or beat the 17,000 that turned out for last year’s match. Ireland is even more well-known than Italy and with the excitement of last year’s event, more people will want to be a part of the fun.
Playing host to Fiji and Tonga should be a nice boost at the gate as well. Both countries have large numbers of ex-pats or of heritage along the West Coast and would be a nice draw in any of those communities. The fact that they will show up anywhere from Seattle, to Salt Lake, to San Diego gives U.S.A. Rugby options. That’s important. One of the biggest factors in deciding where to play a match is cost of venue. Last year’s big crowd in Houston surely put some money back into U.S.A. Rugby but not as much as you’d think once you factor in the cost to rent the facility and either losing out or only getting a fraction of the concessions. It’s the cost factor that has made Infinity Park so attractive to U.S.A. Rugby over the years; low rent and good facilities where U.S.A. Rugby can keep most of the profits.
The big crowds that are expected to accompany Fiji and Tonga could change that equation and make it more likely that neither test will be held in Glendale. Why limit to only 4,000 fans when 10,000 might turn out in the Bay Area or Los Angles? If U.S.A. Rugby handles this correctly, playing in a medium size venue like Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, California could produce a nice haul for the team (again, nothing massive, but not a loss). Even MLS stadiums in L.A. and Utah would be a good fit. Personally, I wouldn’t find it terribly surprising if the test against Tonga was held in Rio Tinto Stadium (the MLS schedule is due to come out in the next few weeks so we’ll learn more about available venues shortly).
Having tests in Houston and then on the West Coast also opens up the possibility that U.S.A. Rugby could host World Cup Qualifying on the East Coast, giving a national feeling to the summer test series. New York is a natural option but only if a venue works out. The same goes for Boston. Still, it wouldn’t be surprising if the qualifying match was awarded to Glendale. They have good facilities and would provide a strong home atmosphere for the team.
The bottom line is that with four home matches this summer, U.S.A. Rugby has options, potentially profitable options. Estimating that the Ireland match will equal the 17,000 that turned out last year, and that Fiji and Tonga could draw 8,000-10,000 a piece for their matches along with an expected 4,000 for a match against Canada, that could mean that roughly 35,000 fans could turn out to watch the Eagles this summer. Again, if done right, that is potentially a nice boost to U.S.A. Rugby High Performance budget. If we want to continue to grow our program and play more tests, we need high turnouts. There is definitely a growing appetite for rugby in this country and drawing out a record number of fans this summer could show to the rest of the world that we may be more prepared to host major events in the future like we did with the Junior World Rugby Trophy. But as always, it’s on U.S.A. Rugby to get the venues right and for us to turn out and watch.