It’s around this time that I have often run a column urging fans to go to the USA 7s. I did this in 2004 and 2005, when it was a USA Rugby-run event, and in 2006 when it was run by USA 7s LLC and I didn’t work for them.
And I’ve done it since. This time, though, I think things are a little different.
I am going to spend a little time dwelling on an expected big crowd, rather than a hoped for one.
Because sports in American is, and always has been, about meaning something for the fans. A hundred years ago the baseball World Series was already a national obsession,. In the 1912 Fall Classic extra crowd space had to be found at the home park of the Boston Red Sox. Players were professional, and had been for about 40 years.
During that time such things as the hot dog and the hamburger were popularized, in part thanks to sports. Marching bands and between-inning entertainment was commonplace. People made their livings from baseball.
You know what made that happen? Time, effort, entrepreneurship. You know what didn’t make it happen? USA Baseball.
The USA 7s will welcome a very large crowd. It could be to all intents and purposes a sellout on one of the days, and total attendance for the weekend will almost certainly top 60,000, and could well be much more.
The 2012 USA 7s will be, as far as I can tell, the most well-attended rugby event in American history. How did it get that way?
The main reason is that USA Rugby sold control of the event to Jon Prusmack and USA 7s LLC. There is no doubt that’s the main reason. USA Rugby is not set up, nor equipped, nor should it be, to full staff a major event, market it, drive interest year-round, land sponsors, secure TV contracts, and do that all with the expectation of losing a large amount of money.
USA Rugby is invested in growing the game, getting more players to play, and building it from within. To grow the game as a spectacle, as an event, as a business proposition is a capitalistic endeavor, and that takes a different approach.
It’s like the old complaint that (pick your sport) has become a business. That’s usually said, sadly, by young adults who realize that callous money decisions happen in all sports. It is a business, but it’s, for kids, a place for heroes. For some players it’s a job. For some it’s a calling that becomes a job. For an owner it’s an investment.
There’s nothing wrong with looking at sport from all those angles.
At USA Rugby, marketing and putting on events is a sideline, and it’s a sideline with risks. So the organization is usually very conservative. Ever since I’ve been reporting on American rugby I have reported and repeated comments that USA Rugby doesn’t market their event strategically or aggressively. USA Rugby is more marketing savvy than it once was, but the organization still sees its job as getting the teams on the field, not losing their shirt doing it.
That’s why you can’t create a pro sports endeavor through a governing body. They don’t have that driving need to pay the piper. They have the driving need to service the member, which is a different job, entirely.
USA 7s LLC’s job is to get the teams on the field, and make the USA 7s an exciting, fun event that will make tens of thousands of people want to pay to see it. They have succeeded, but it took many years and a lot of investment to get here.
Every week, a large number of people, including this writer, get on a conference call to talk over what’s going on. The purpose of the call is simple: what have you done lately to be successful? When the answer is “not much” or worse “I don’t know” you can imagine the response.
Putting on really successful sporting events has to matter, almost obsessively, to someone.
It also has to take investing in a location and a group of people.
As Dan Lyle said in RuggaMatrix America Show #78, success for an event means finding a home. USA Rugby should find a home, too, for their many events. Specific cities should be synonymous with particular championships. Awarding test matches should be a coup for a venue and a city, and should be something the city hosts for several years, thus building an association between the game and the people there.
Going forward, we should all be pleased when a commercial rugby venture succeeds. It gives our sport more life, more influence. We should also learn from it. USA Rugby can’t afford to risk thousands of dollars in marketing in the hope fans come to see the USA play – we understand that – maybe, instead, private promoters, with USA Rugby as a partner, need to get serious.
According to the Elite Sports Fans Marketing Group, the average sports fan spends $5,000 a year on travel, $2,500 on sports clothing products.
In 2010, an average family outing to a major league baseball game cost $195 and the average ticket was just under $27. Some clubs averaged over $50. NBA tickets average just under $50 a game. NFL tickets average over $77 and a family outing costs $427 (source for all these stats: Team Marketing Report).
With NFL teams average just over 67,000 fans a game, and gross attendance over 17 million, and with Major League Baseball teams averaging 30,000 a game and over 73 million gross (source: ESPN) you see that there are a lot of sports fans willing to pay large sums of money to watch games.
Now, I’m not saying rugby can compete with those numbers. I am not saying that USA 7s can compete with those numbers. But if you look at the average rugby fan – the 100,000 or so players in this country plus the several hundred thousand who used to play – as a fan of sports, specifically this sport, is it not reasonable to expect they might want to drop some of those hundreds of dollars to watch rugby?
I think so. But rugby fans aren’t going to go to a rugby event just because it’s there. They, like any sports fans, have expectations. They want a decent place to sit, nice toilets, enough concessions. They want the stadium to be clean and relatively modern. And they want the experience to mean something.
All of that took a long time to set up for the USA 7s. It took a long time for other pro sports, too. The USA 7s in Las Vegas, like Major League Baseball, the NFL, or whatever big rugby event we’d like to see, doesn’t just happen.