When Beth Coalter arrived in Las Vegas in August, the city had as much chance of staging a prestigious international rugby event as the 50-something Coalter had of scoring in a match for her beloved Ireland. Right away, she seemed eager to board the next plane and return to Dublin, home of the International Rugby Board, for whom Coalter manages all global IRB Sevens tournaments.
“We don’t like this idea … we don’t think Las Vegas is a fit,” Coalter told Rob Cornelius, the Hard Rock Hotel’s director of banquet and catering operations, who had to sell her on the city. Coalter envisioned a den of debauchery festered with fat, drunken Elvises losing everything at the roulette wheel. Cornelius quickly turned Sin City into Win City. Showing the dexterity of current English Sevens ace Ben Gollings, the sport’s living legend, Cornelius, who also is president of the Las Vegas Blackjacks rugby club (which isn’t playing in the Sevens tournament), escorted Coalter into the Hard Rock’s lush pool area, surrounded by palm trees and cabanas. He then guided her through the resort’s gym and spa, explaining to her that many hotels boast the same amenities. He guided her and USA Sevens tournament director Dan Lyle on a tour of the city that included Red Rock Canyon and Mount Charleston. “Paradise,” Coalter told Cornelius. She had no idea what the real Las Vegas was like. “All of a sudden—wow,” Cornelius says. “She was totally blown away by the class of the city.” That was the final green light that secured Las Vegas as the U.S. host to the 16-nation IRB Sevens World Series on Feb. 13 and 14 at Sam Boyd Stadium. The U.S. made the World Series a seven-stop tour when it joined in 2004. Cornelius sought host status when San Diego’s contract with USA Sevens expired. Las Vegas beat out Denver, San Francisco and a Florida effort for a multi-year deal, and the event is expected to fetch nearly $20 million in nongaming revenue for the city. Rugby is the second most-popular sport in many countries, and that fervor will be on display in and around Sam Boyd, which will have a natural-grass pitch for the series. Fans from Kenya, Samoa and Fiji will fly their flags and stuff their faces with food from their native lands outside the stadium. Maori bands from New Zealand will play during games. There will be competitions for kids. “Like an NFL Zone,” Cornelius says. “There will be different vendors, different foods, different clothing … a mix of everything, a little bit of every country. It will be a true cultural festival.” Adding to the event’s allure, Rugby Sevens was ratified as an Olympic sport for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro by the International Olympic Committee in October. Normal rugby features 15 players a side. Drop eight and slice the game to seven-minute halves, and the result is a frenetic, high-scoring game. Forty-four matches will be played in two days. “A lot of people think Las Vegas is the right place for Rugby Sevens,” Lyle says. “There are multiple games and teams play a very fast and quick game over the course of a weekend. It’ll be very entertaining.”