While fans mourn the close of one World Cup, another is upon us. This weekend, the Rugby World Cup Sevens is taking over San Francisco for three action-packed days of non-stop rugby at AT&T Park.
Dan Payne, CEO of USA Rugby, is especially excited and optimistic about the sport’s growth through the upcoming global event.
“The game is expanding within the youth and high school ranks,” said Payne, a former player on the U.S. national team who eventually worked as a collegiate athletic director before taking on his current role leading rugby’s national governing body. “There’s a professional league this year for the first time and it’s probably going to help seven to 10 different markets grow in a manner that we’ve never seen before because they’re actually looking at the business side of making professional franchises work.”
This weekend’s Rugby World Cup is a sign of the sport’s expansion in the U.S. and hopefully will serve a catalyst for future development once the tournament concludes.
The event is anticipated to bring 100,000 fans through the stadium, which is home to the San Francisco Giants. A unique celebration of both sports and culture, rugby sevens differs from what is considered traditional rugby (15 versus 15 with two 40 minute halves). This version of the sport is a fast-paced frenzy of matches featuring seven players per side who compete in two seven-minute halves. Due to the short match length, attendees can expect to see between 20 and 22 matches on any single day of the competition.
The fans differ from those of traditional rugby, too. For those who are familiar with San Francisco’s famous Bay to Breakers, an annual 12K race known for its costumes and lively atmosphere, the scene at the World Cup Sevens will be similar.
“People dress up in costumes and you’ll normally have a group of 10 to 15 that will show up in a similar theme costume. They just have a blast and join in on a day-long party while they watch the rugby and listen to great music over the loudspeakers. It’s a great experience,” explained Payne.
The event is a perfect fit for San Francisco — a notoriously quirky city that values individuality, self-expression and lively atmosphere — because it’s a great way to attract sports fans who may be unfamiliar to rugby. USA Rugby hopes that by selling fans on the ambiance and getting them into the door, their interest in the sport will spike after seeing it in person.
“It really combines with the overall ethos of San Francisco. There are no shortage of ways to express yourself however you want as a fan during the weekend, so it’ll be great,” Payne remarked, commenting on the synergy between San Francisco and rugby sevens’ culture.
San Francisco and Northern California are two rugby hotbeds in the U.S. and Payne and his team made a concentrated effort to spread the word about the event in the Bay Area.
To start, they hosted Giants Rugby Night at AT&T Park, which featured demonstrations and player appearances on an inflatable field in the middle of McCovey Cove. This cross-sport event helped drive awareness of the sport and the World Cup. A successful turnout to the event backed up USA Rugby’s belief in the sport’s market and fanbase.
“We had 500 people there that bought packages just to be a part of Rugby Night. The package included a rugby ball and got them into a game. It was a way for the Giants to use rugby as a promotion to fill their stadium on a Monday night,” said Payne. “They sold out the 500 packages they had available and that’s a win/win for everybody.”
At the conclusion of the Giants game, in which they defeated the Cincinnati Reds 10-7, everyone knew that the World Cup was coming this summer.
“It elevated the game to a different standard of relevance within people’s psyche, which is very important,” Payne said.
Along with that, USA Rugby has hosted several promotions with NBC Sports Bay Area to raise awareness about the event. The governing body also did an international marketing push, traveling to London, Sydney, and Dublin, to San Francisco as a U.S. vacation destination.
“We used rugby as an excuse to make sure that if [people are] coming to the states from abroad and they are from one of those rugby-playing countries and thinking about going to Chicago or New York or San Francisco, San Francisco has become their destination of choice because they want to take in the Rugby World Cup,” Payne said.
For non-rugby fans, the atmosphere is the selling point, but for true rugby fans, the attraction is the talent.
Each participating country will put forth their respective men’s and women’s Olympic teams, showcasing the best sevens’ talent in the world. Given the schedule, fans will be able to see several matches each day making attendance worth it whether they are able to make it to one day or all three.
Following this tournament, USA Rugby will continue to invest in the sport’s growth in the U.S. and has initiatives in place to drive youth to the game.
“One dollar from every ticket sold for this World Cup this summer is going back towards funding individuals placed in and around the Bay Area to help grow and develop youth programs for the game,” Payne said.
Additionally, USA Rugby is placing development officers to grow the game and through grow youth leagues around the Bay Area and northern California as a whole.
Outside of Northern California, Payne considers Southern California, states from the Mid-Atlantic up through New England, and the Midwest as some of the country’s largest rugby markets. Recently, a triangle within Texas consisting of Dallas, Austin, and Houston, and Cincinnati have also been emerging areas of growth.
“As youth and high school leagues grow, it pushes up into college and now with a men’s professional league at the top of that, it will help fuel the growth at the lower levels because it gives you that aspirational component as well,” Payne said.
One of the keys to growing the game is exposure and events like the Rugby World Cup offer that. When youth see the game up close and develop an understanding for it, like they do in Little League Baseball or Pop Warner Youth Football, it will continue to build leagues and opportunities for kids to play.
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With the Rugby World Cup Sevens and USA Rugby’s current grassroots marketing efforts as a launching point, Payne expects the sport’s membership to grow by 30-40 percent in the next 10 years.
“This is a really unique opportunity to have 40 of the world’s best teams and countries coming into play in our backyard,” Payne said. “Anybody that comes out and acts on their curiosity [of the sport] will not have anything less than a great six to eight hours at the ballpark.”