LAS VEGAS, NV -So it’s Sayonara to Sam Boyd Stadium if you’re an American rugby fan, as the long, wild, fun run that is the American leg of the HSBC World Series 7’s comes to an end next week in the Nevada desert. I’ve been a coach, a selector, an administrator, an analyst and above all an Eagles fan, (Scotland too, when they’re not wearing fluorescent green!), and I’ve enjoyed every crazy minute. But it’s over and the biggest party on the World Rugby Sevens Series circuit, and comfortably the American rugby community’s favorite weekend, is now a bust flush. It’s time to fold’em… but the question is why?
Let’s start with the rights holder, World Rugby, for it is they, and not USA Rugby who “own” the event, and with the current four-year cycle ending, they have chosen not to renew the license of the late, great Jon Prusmack’s United World Sports, opting instead to initiate an Olympic-style tender process, whereby cities are solicited for their interest, rather than third-party promoters. While it is understood that the formal bidding process has not yet started, preliminary expressions from those interested have been invited. World Rugby’s public reasons range from dissatisfaction with the aging Sam Boyd Stadium (due to be demolished in 2020), player and coach complaints about the quality of the playing surface and its admittedly narrow width, the unhealthy cigarette-filled hotel lobbies and the general distractions and potential for moral turpitude that “Sin City” apparently provides.
Most insiders, however, also allude to the general dissatisfaction with which the title sponsors, HSBC, view the location, Las Vegas, and the “sponsor experience.” Yet others mention the fact that UWS has chosen to ally with ESPN rather than World Rugby’s preferred media partner NBC. The real reason, however, is World Rugby and their (perfectly legal) desire to maximize their financial return from what is their property, by taking back control of the American leg from United World Sports. Now that the event is finally trending north, World Rugby is set to cut out the middleman and sell it to cities/venues directly, promising those cities the economic benefits of hosting a successful event, while pocketing the difference.
Historically, the American leg of the Series has not always been a success and it was only after Jon Prusmack bought the license from USA Rugby and ploughed his own money into developing the event, that it became profitable. Earlier iterations in Los Angeles (run by USAR) and San Diego (run by UWS) failed to capture either the imagination or the crowds before Prusmack’s team turned things around and tasted success in Vegas.
The plain fact is there are two Vegas-specific reasons why Vegas works, and why World Rugby will struggle to find suitable alternative suitors. The first is the Las Vegas Invitational, (owned and operated by UWS), which is the largest amateur participatory tournament in the country. It draws just under 300 teams and around 6-8,000 American rugby players, parents and fans to the entertainment mecca. There is no equivalent alternative venue that has the infrastructure, the fields, hotels, etc, to accommodate such a tournament so close to a stadium – even if one were to try to replicate the LVI. Those fans will be hard to replace. The second is that, well, it’s Vegas; cheap flights and hotels allied to a plethora of options to keep the non rugby-interested wife/partner/children happy, makes it very doable. Quite simply, Vegas is the best possible location.
The powers that be in Dublin (WR) who are considering the move would do well to consider the mixed bag that was their own 7s World Cup last year in San Francisco. Set in the spectacular AT&T Park and delivering a fantastic tournament full of quality rugby, it also delivered a stinging financial operational loss, estimated between $2.5m – $4m. That loss essentially bankrupted the host, USA Rugby, forcing it to seek a bail-out from World Rugby and have a WR representative placed on the USA Rugby Board of Directors. (Sporting imperialism redux?).
Granted, not all operators will be as inept and amateur as USA Rugby and the clown circus formerly known as RIM, but to understand why the San Francisco analogy is important, consider this: If the venue is great and the product is great and you still don’t make money, what exactly is the point? And who in their right mind is going to sign up for that?
Given USA Rugby’s reduced circumstances and financial dependence on World Rugby, it is no surprise that its public position is in essence, “we have no position.” While USA Rugby leadership states its willingness to work with both World Rugby and United World Sports, it has expended little effort on defending United World Sports’ years of investment or reflecting the wishes of the wider American rugby community in this matter.
In conclusion, World Rugby has seriously miscalculated, and will struggle to find a commercially viable alternative venue, evidenced by some tepid initial responses to their tender. If that’s the case, here’s hoping the American leg will eventually come back to its natural home… Viva Las Vegas. Don’t bet against it!
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Copyright Stephen Lewis 2019