Las Vegas continues to build toward its claim as a global sports destination next month when Major League Rugby heads to Southern Nevada.
The league, entering its third season, will hold five games across two weekends in February. The move to host MLR games in Las Vegas is a way to escape the cold climates several of the league’s teams call home, said Rob Cornelius, president of Las Vegas-based Emersion Sports & Entertainment, which is hosting the weekend.
However, it’s also part of a push from Las Vegas to try to establish a foothold in the rugby world.
In 2010, Las Vegas got its first taste of rugby, when the USA Sevens moved to the city from being hosted in California. The USA Sevens, a rugby sevens tournament annually held in March, is the largest annual rugby competition in the U.S., bringing plenty of fans to Las Vegas for the tournament – in 2018, it reported a total attendance of 80,000 across three days.
However, after spending the entirety of the 2010s in Las Vegas, the event is slated to return to California in 2020, leaving the city without a rugby touchpoint.
Cornelius said that his company began discussions with MLR to host the games as a result.
“When you invest that much time as a destination, it’s something we looked at when it left as a lot of work and energy you hate to lose,” Cornelius said. “How do we keep nine years of momentum and help Major League Rugby and build a brand and keep sponsors and people who invested that time and give them all something to look forward to as we continue the growth of international sports in our city.”
The five matches begin on February 9, when the New England Free Jacks take on Rugby United New York. The rest of the four take place during the official MLR Vegas Weekend with double-headers on February 15 and 16, featuring the Utah Warriors, Austin Herd, Toronto Arrows, Houston SaberCats, San Diego Legion, Glendale Raptors, as well as the Free Jacks and Rugby United. The games were initially slated for Las Vegas Ballpark but have since been moved to Sam Boyd Stadium, which recently finished its tenure as the home of UNLV football.
For an upstart league in a country where rugby has plenty of upward mobility in terms of popularity compared to the rest of the globe, holding a festive event in one of the world’s foremost destination cities was a strategic move, said George Killebrew, who recently started his stint as the MLR’s second commissioner.
“We are excited for the MLR Vegas Weekend because it represents the growth of the league and presents an incredible opportunity for fans,” Killebrew said, mentioning the special hotel packages the league was able to secure for fans. “There’s a lengthy history of rugby in Las Vegas, so we’re looking forward to continuing those traditions and adding to them for Vegas residents.”
While Killebrew did not have a direct hand in organizing the MLR Vegas Weekend – he was appointed commissioner in December, replacing Dean Howes, the league’s first commissioner – helping the league succeed in efforts like this while continuing to grow is a key reason why he was hired, according to Rick Alessandri, general manager of Turnkey Search, which was hired to assist in filling the position.
“Major League Rugby is well-positioned with the 12 teams they have going into season three,” Alessandri said. “[MLR officials] were looking for someone who could lead the way into the next phase of growth, with a significant local market background in sales and sponsorship, but understood the national and international landscape. They were looking for a real leader, a cheerleader with high energy and gravitas.”
Prior to joining MLR, Killebrew had been executive vice president and chief revenue officer of the Dallas Mavericks.
Rugby had a solid decade of growth in the U.S. but did experience a participation decline in 2019. By some accounts, however, it was the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., and like its efforts in other sports such as basketball, Las Vegas is making an effort to establish itself as an epicenter for the sport.
The city’s relationship with rugby is deeper than most American markets, primarily fueled by its previous hosting of the USA Sevens, which Cornelius worked with destination marketers to bring to town as an economic driver following the Great Recession.
Along with the Sevens, the amateur Vegas Invitational has been held alongside the event and will continue to do so along with MLR Vegas Weekend. The amateur event also includes a D1A Rugby Collegiate National Title qualifier event. USA Rugby is hosting a west coast stop of its community roadshow, which includes coaching and referee seminars and club administration.
Along with building out a weekend full of rugby in Las Vegas, Cornelius said the event is aiming to be interesting for spectators beyond what’s on the field. From concessions with “international flair” like fish and chips, meat pies, South African curries, and Fijian foods to the raucous rugby fans themselves, he ensures it will be a lively time.
“The rugby fan is a sign it’s going to get a little crazy,” he said. “It’s a good time just to watch hardcore rugby fans.”
While MLR Vegas Weekend is expanding the reach of professional rugby into Las Vegas, Cornelius said Emersion is working toward, and desires, much more than a single successful weekend.
“It’s more for the future than it is today,” he said. “How do we get Sevens back? International test matches? That’s the long term, to continue building something we’ve worked on for nine years.”