In 2009, the USA Sevens international rugby tournament seemed to be doing just fine. Its crowds were approaching 40,000 for the weekend event in San Diego (one of the few American cities with a rugby culture), and it was housed in a unique setting for the sport, Petco Park (home to baseball’s Padres).
So, naturally, the organizers decided to leave San Diego. Having been to every USA Sevens since its inception in 2004, I knew what the trade-offs were. The tournament had relocated from what is now the StubHub Center in Carson, California—a soulless venue that didn’t attract fans—to an oddly shaped ballpark in San Diego’s hip Gaslamp Quarter. That move seemed to be a winner.
But the decision-makers at the USA Sevens’ parent company (now named United World Sports) wanted more than a winner. They wanted a game-changer. So they changed the game by moving to Las Vegas.
It was certainly a risk. After all, San Diego had more rugby fans, a state-of-the-art stadium and temperate weather that was ideal for a midwinter outdoor event. Conversely, Las Vegas had no attachment to rugby and a stadium that was built in 1971, one with metal bleachers that weren’t exactly comfortable to sit on in early February.
But the organizers were thinking big picture, hoping to grow interest in the sport over time. They reasoned they could attract fans from states (California, Colorado, Utah) within driving distance to Las Vegas, and they gambled that overseas fans would flock to Sin City if you mixed a little rugby into a long weekend.
Making the destination city a co-star with the games themselves, United World Sports made a calculated business decision. Then they closed their eyes tight and hoped it would work.
It did. The first tournament at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2010 was surprisingly well-attended, and the crowds have since grown. Meanwhile, the Las Vegas Invitational, which is a tournament for fans who like playing the game, now features more than 230 teams.
“Our organization’s entire focus is getting more visitors to the city,” says Pat Christenson, president of Las Vegas Events, which helped recruit the 16-nation USA Sevens tournament. “And for us, the biggest difference between rugby sevens and other events is the international traveler. [The international fan base] grows every year and [accounts for] a significant portion of the fans for the tournament.”
Visit the Strip on Saturday night when the tournament is in town, and you’ll see what he means. Burly, smiling Samoans. Scots in matching red wigs, Tam o’ Shanters and kilts. Fans dressed as bananas (we don’t know where they’re from). And Australians mingling with Fijians mingling with Kenyans mingling with Canadians (a lot of Canadians) … you get the idea.
“If I were to have an awards show for visitors to Las Vegas, rugby fans would get the Most Outrageous Partying Award,” Christenson says. “It’s the costuming as well as the partying. I can’t think of a fan that has as good a time as the rugby fan.”
In retrospect, it’s not really a surprise that the world’s rugby fans have developed an affinity for Las Vegas. Rather, the surprise is that the city has embraced the sport.
For that, a lot of credit goes to Vaha Esikia, the always-smiling former USA national team rugby player who, along with USA Sevens, has helped educate the community on rugby’s nuances. Esikia started a youth flag rugby program in Las Vegas, coaches UNLV and has formed the Nevada Youth Rugby Organization.
“The USA Sevens has been a huge part of it,” says Esikia, who also runs a high school team that plays in Utah. “With the tournament here every year, interest has grown. They do the adopt-a-country program in the schools, and we go out there and teach middle and elementary school kids the basics. Parents learn that it’s a safe sport, and the kids have fun.”
Indeed, as the USA Sevens this week celebrates its sixth year at Sam Boyd, it’s clear that leaving San Diego for Las Vegas was one roll of the dice that has paid off—for everyone involved in the scrum.
Alex Goff is a longtime rugby journalist and is currently the editor of GoffRugbyReport.com.