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Written By: Brock Smith
New York, New York! It's a helluva town! 🎵
Picture this scenario:
There’s just seconds left in your match. With the score all knotted up, you receive a pass deep in the opposition’s end. You sense an opportunity, and you take it; with a burst of speed, you break the line, shake off two would-be tacklers, and dive in for the match-winning try. You pick yourself up, and in that brief space of time before you’re met with hugs and high-fives from your jubilant teammates, you allow yourself a moment to tune out the white noise in order to fully appreciate your surroundings.
If only for a second, your crowd is no longer made up of the throngs of supporters lining the pitch; its now the umpteen skyscrapers dotting the eastern Manhattan skyline, monoliths twinkling in the twilight dusk.
That din you hear? The roar of the crowd is hushed by the drone of traffic rumbling overhead on the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, as cars shuttle between Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.
The ball slips from your hands, and you’re greeted by the icy chill of the late-November breeze blowing off the East River. As the wind hits your face, you snap out of the moment-long trance, smiling as you think to yourself, “there’s no other tournament like this in the world.”
As the largest and longest-running one-day rugby tournament in North America, the New York Sevens regularly provides these moments of 'woah' for its 1,500+ yearly participants.
The New York Rugby Club has hosted its annual sevens tournament on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving since 1959. This year - the 59th instalment of the tournament - close to 150 teams from across the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Fiji will descend upon the Big Apple.
Matches are played on the southern tip of Randall's Island – a 2.09 square kilometre dot emerging out of the East River, nestled snugly between three New York boroughs – offering sweeping, panoramic views of North America’s most famous skyline.
“Playing a tournament in New York, one of the greatest cities in the world, has its own inherent appeal,” says tournament director Dan Cavanaugh, breaking down how the New York Sevens has become a destination rugby tournament. “Having the opportunity to come to New York and play in a high-level one-day competition is our primary draw, but the tournament also offers an opportunity to spend a weekend in New York around the holiday season, which is a special time to visit our city.”
Aside from the tournament’s location, Cavanaugh says it’s the off-the-field, grassroots-focused experience that keeps teams coming back year after year; the pretentious glitz and glamour of the big city is parked firmly on the other side of the bridge.
“We have about 70 volunteers from the New York Rugby Club working hard for more than 18 hours on the day of the tournament, ensuring a great competition experience is offered,” adds Cavanaugh. “We now offer 12 divisions of rugby, from social to premier, and it allows sides of all levels to choose the specific tournament experience they’re looking for.”
Men’s and women’s teams compete in various high school, collegiate, social, club, and premier divisions, and can expect to play at least four matches throughout the competition.
“I’ve travelled down to the New York Sevens for the past four years, and I’ll be returning again this year,” says Khalil Ajram. “With the rise in popularity within the sevens game, it’s expanded so much since my first time down there, especially on the women’s side. It’s a can’t-miss tournament.”
Ajram is coaching and managing with the Canadian Mis-Fit Sevens under-18 men’s and women’s elite sides, an Ontario-based program dedicated to developing potential sevens stars who have already graduated from junior provincial rugby. The Mis-Fits will be sending three teams to the tournament later this month.
“When you’re down there, you can enjoy so many different types of rugby across the island,” adds Ajram. “You’ll have future Olympians playing explosive rugby on the premier field, and if you venture to the side fields you’ll have men and women in their thirties and forties that are playing, with everyone laughing and enjoying themselves. Everyone is there with a common goal to have fun.”
Beyond the competition infrastructure, Ajram describes the off-the-pitch appeal for travelling teams looking to create a memorable tour over the course of a weekend.
“Touring sides get to experience so much of New York in such a short period of time,” he explains. “We get to experience Black Friday shopping in Times Square. We get to experience the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. We get to experience the Empire State Building. Where else can you do all that in three days, while still getting to play four or five games of rugby?”
With so many pull factors attracting touring sides to the competition, it’s no surprise that tournament officials have virtually ceased marketing efforts aimed at generating registrations. Recent years have seen waitlists for some divisions start months ahead of the tournament; massive marketing efforts simply aren’t necessary anymore.
“We fill up every year, and with such strong word-of-mouth marketing, we don’t need to do a ton of marketing ourselves,” says Cavanaugh. “We have a limit for how many matches we can get done during the day, even though we’ll be using a tournament-record 16 pitches on Randall’s Island this year.”
Though participation interest continues to rise, based on available field space and volunteer support over the holiday weekend, Cavanaugh admits that the tournament has likely reached its capacity for the number of teams it can host for a one-day tournament.
“We may have a little bit of wiggle room to get slightly bigger in future years, but logistically-speaking, I can’t see us really getting past 150 or 160 teams,” he says. “But we’re looking at expanding in other ways, especially from an impact and exposure standpoint. This includes a new partnership with FloRugby, which will allow us to live-stream three fields with commentary throughout the tournament."
Want to stand out at the New York Sevens? The Big Apple requires some big style; invest in some memorable kits, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming the stars of the one-day island jamboree.
"You’re guaranteed to see at least a few outrageous uniforms each year,” laughs Ajram. “Last year, the Minions [of Despicable Me fame] were huge crowd favourites, and the year before that there were the Santa Clauses, and they play in their outfits! It’s just a great cultural experience.”
Catering to Olympic hopefuls, costumed coteries, and all players and teams in between, Cavanaugh wants to continue developing the tournament’s legacy; one that keeps teams coming back year-in, year-out.
“We’re always glad to see so many teams travel to New York from across the US, Canada, and many other countries. The goal is to keep putting on a top-notch tournament, offer a memorable competition that people love, and to keep them coming back every year.”
Based on how the tournament continues to evolve, Cavanaugh has every reason to be optimistic.
Plus, as Ajram notes, teams will always return, if only to catch one more glimpse of the iconic New York skyline.
“I’ve been to Vegas. I’ve been to Utah. I’ve been to British Columbia. They’re great, but no venue comes close to New York. Hearing the sound of the water off the East River, and being able to see the Manhattan skyline while you’re playing…,” he pauses. "There’s no other tournament where you can experience something like that.”