Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
With the Churchill Cup finished for this year USA Rugby’s focus will turn towards the NA4 and the Eagle’s two summer matches. In the back of their minds though will be the 2009 Churchill Cup competition. It has been noted on several occasions that USA Rugby is prepared to host the entire tournament on US soil in 2009. It will be the first time that the US has hosted more than one round of the tournament and it is a major step up in operations and profile for USA Rugby. USA Rugby has become more and more financially sound under the new leadership. Their willingness to host the entire tournament in 2009 (they spurned the opportunity in 2008) shows that they have confidence that they will be able to make money. Since the tournament will involve four separate locations, this will give more of the country a chance at seeing International level rugby. This also gives USA Rugby further testing ground to see if the fan base can support professional level rugby in the USA.
The format will most likely remain the same as no more than two matches can be played in one day until the Finals. Let’s take a look at some possible locations for the Churchill Cup pool play and then the Finals. USA Rugby will be looking for suitable digs probably with the capacity to host between 5,000-20,000 fans. The finals this past year had around 10,000 fans, so I’d be surprised to see more than that at each of the pool play rounds. You’d expect the finals to pull in the largest crowds, but I’m interested to see how other areas stack up in terms of attendance.
Toyota Park – Chicago, IL – Will no doubt be involved at some point in the process. USA Rugby has now worked with them on multiple occasions and it has been successful for both parties. The stadium is a near perfect venue for rugby. Its centralized location in the USA and easy access via car or air makes it a very easy choice. I won’t be surprised to see the 2009 Churchill Cup finals back at Toyota Park.
Infinity Park – Glendale, CO – As the only rugby specific stadium in the USA, I would be absolutely shocked if they weren’t one of the stops during the pool play portion of the tournament. At a capacity of 5,000 they are a perfectly sized stadium for a pool play round.
Irish Cultural Center – Boston, MA – Planned to host the upcoming Eagles vs. Munster match, before the match was switched to Connecticut. Their location on the East Coast and their openness to work with USA Rugby makes them an early candidate. The ICC has a beautiful country setting and has the space to accommodate a crowd in the 5,000-10,000 range.
Buck Shaw Stadium – Santa Clara, CA – Played host to a round of the Churchill Cup in 2006 and would fit the bill nicely as a stop on the tour. The stadium has recently been expanded from 6,800 seats to 10,300 so it fits nicely into the range that USA Rugby will most likely be looking for.
Crew Stadium – Columbus, OH – This one is a long shot, as it may be a little big (22,500 capacity) for a pool play round, but I wanted to throw it in here regardless as it is a premier facility and one that should be considered by USA Rugby for some sort of future event. There are so few professional grade stadiums in the USA that are also small enough to accommodate a budding sport such as rugby. Columbus fits that bill nicely and were it not for Toyota Park’s excellent location and recent history with USA Rugby, Crew Stadium could be in the running for the finals.
Blackbaud Stadium – Charleston, SC – Set to host the Eagles as they take on ASM Clermont this coming August, Blackbaud Stadium and more importantly the rugby community in the Southeast has a chance to prove that they can support this type of event. A well attended event could go a long way towards putting them in the running for hosting a round of next year’s Churchill Cup. At 5,100 seats, the stadium is an excellent size for a pool play round.
REMAX Greater Atlanta Stadium – Atlanta, GA – With the heat and humidity, I know this is pushing awfully far south for a June event. But, I wanted another entry from the southeast. Also known as Silverback Park, it may be a bit on the small size as it currently sits at 3,000 seats. It could be one for the future though as plans are in place to expand the seating to 7,000 and then ultimately to 15,000 in the next few years.
Virginia Beach Sportsplex – Virginia Beach, VA – I added this one to the list because it reeks of opportunity. The Virginia Beach Sportsplex was the first soccer specific stadium built from the ground up in the USA. Built with the hopes of drawing a MLS franchise and opened in 1999, the Virginia Beach Sportsplex holds 10,000 people and has the full set of amenities that would be expected for an event like the Churchill Cup. Just a couple hours from Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia, which are rugby hotbeds, this location has the potential to draw a substantial crowd. The Sportsplex has also fallen on hard times of late after their soccer franchise folded. With few events on their calendar to offset costs, USA Rugby could probably get a very good deal on this place.
Rentschler Field – Hartford, CT – Home to the UCONN football team, Rentschler Field is set to host the Eagles vs. Munster match at the end of August. Expecting a very good crowd, USA Rugby moved the match to Hartford from Boston. Rentschler Field also hosted the Eagles vs. Wales in 2005. It is on the large size, 40,000 seats, for the Churchill Cup, but may be in consideration.
Dick’s Sporting Goods Park – Commerce City, CO – Were it not for near by Infinity Park, then Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (capacity 18,000) would be another very good candidate. Recently opened and billed as the most state-of-the-art professional stadium and field complex in the world the stadium has everything to offer.
Witter Rugby Field – Berkeley, CA – Not to be forgotten in the mass of professional grade stadiums that I have listed, Witter Rugby Field has the capacity to host up to 5,000 fans and has been host to countless USA Rugby events over the years. That relationship alone is bound to get them on the short list of possible Churchill Cup locations for 2009.
Well, that about covers it for me. As far as the performance regions go, there are at least two choices within each region. I went a little heavy on the East Region, but that is because I think they have some very interesting choices. Outside of Atlanta, I also steered away from the Deep South and southwest of the USA because of obvious temperature issues. Had I not, Pizza Hut Park in Texas would have no doubt made the list among a few other sites.
Even more importantly, USA Rugby needs to continue to branch out and take the game to different parts of the country. Hosting the entire 2009 Churchill Cup on US soil will be a huge step in that direction. A lot of people are doing the dirty work at the grassroots level, but getting professional grade events in new marketplaces can have a profound effect on newcomers to the game. My wife and I sat beside two newcomers (father & son) to rugby at Toyota Park this past weekend and they were smitten by the game. They knew little about it and came out to see what it was all about. They loved the matches and wanted to know when they could see another event.
It is also important that these matches be held at professional grade venues, because that is what the American sporting public expects. Rugby needs to be presented as a professional product in the USA, even if we do not currently have a professional league.
Also not to be ignored is the fact that USA Rugby should be building relationships with the facility operators and the MLS clubs that are in these stadiums. In the next few years even more soccer specific stadiums will be opened in areas such as Washington D.C., Kansas City, New York, Salt Lake City, and Philadelphia. These stadiums are perfect venues for professional rugby and if there is ever going to be a professional rugby league in the United States, they’re going to need access to these stadiums until more Infinity Park’s pop up on the map.
We probably won’t know the venues for quite some time, but it was on my mind while I was watching play this past Saturday and felt it would be better to just get it out instead of holding onto it for 5-6 months.