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Written by: Adam McQueen
Fireworks. Tailgating. ‘Saberkitten’ cheerleaders. Oh, and there was also a rugby game!
The Houston Sabercats pre-season opener against CDI Premier League side Seattle Saracens truly proved that everything is bigger in Texas, as the MLR franchise marched to a comprehensive 50-7 victory in front of a sold-out Constellation Field.
While the on-field dominance against an amateur setup was to be expected, what really caught the eye was an electric atmosphere of 5,300 fans descending upon Sugar Land, Texas, to catch a glimpse of the newest professional sport in town. The Sabercats organization did not disappoint, promoting both themselves and the sport as a brand that fans can galvanize around.
Accompanying the aforementioned ‘American’ sporting traditions of cheerleaders and beer, the Sabercats handed out free merchandise for the first fans in attendance and brought a live band on stage for a pre-game kickoff concert. There was also a concerted effort to create a family-oriented spectacle by setting up a fan zone with various rugby skill games. Taking a bite from tech giant Apple, Houston provided ‘Rugby Geniuses’ that were dotted around the stadium to answer any queries about the game. As someone who has played the sport for the better part of fifteen years, even I get surprised by new rules that I had no idea existed. For a sport that was alien to many in attendance on Saturday night, these are the very things required to sell rugby.
If Houston’s performance is an indication of things to come, the MLR looks set to correct the failures of the PRO league expansion that attempted to bring professional rugby to North America two years ago. Rugby will sell itself when played at the highest level - its pace and physicality combine the greatest elements of sports that Americans hold dearest to their hearts.
However, in a professional environment, customers need to be sold an experience. For some, witnessing a flyer soar down the wing for an extravagant try or watching a goal-line stand consisting of countless bodies being sacrificed to ensure a victory will be the exact moments that trigger a fan’s love affair with rugby.
Yet for others, it may be the ceremonious fireworks or sharing beers with some newfound friends at the tailgate party that will serve as their fondest memories. For rugby to succeed as a professional sport, the emphasis must be placed upon both equally.
Another element of Major League Rugby that may result in sustained success is its organizational structure. Each of the seven cities have found local investors to bankroll the different MLR franchises, whereas the PRO model was headed both financially and structurally by a single individual. As such, the onus is spread across different ownership groups to stir up interest within their respective cities. Add the fact that MLR have already agreed to a television partnership with CBS Sports Network which will air a ‘Game of the Week’, and viewership rates should skyrocket from PRO’s figures, which relied on live streaming from Facebook.
British Columbia-based clubs will get their first taste of the MLR experience in the upcoming weeks as both the UBCOB Ravens and James Bay Athletic Association will fly to Houston for pre-season matches. Myself and many other Canadian club players will be fortunate enough to get a first-hand look at the future landscape of North American rugby.
Given that the atmosphere off the field more than matched the on-field product in Houston’s home opener, Major League Rugby may have finally found a formula to entice fans and inspire players.