Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Does Major League Soccer Offer a Base for a North American Rugby World Cup?

The unofficial home of the Canadian rugby team: BMO Field
Following the successful hosting of the Maori All Blacks in non-capped international matches the governing bodies of rugby in Canada and the United States of America are looking ahead to hosting additional reputable rugby matches as the demand in both North American countries continued to reach unprecedented levels. 

In June Canada hosted Ireland in front of a record crowd for rugby. 20,396 people were at the BMO field in Toronto. It came six days after the largest ever crowd in the USA had attended the USA v Ireland at the BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. The official attendance of 20,181 in Houston in conjunction with a strong attendance twelve months earlier against Italy at the same ground has seen the venue selected to host the biggest home match of the 2014 season as Scotland will play in Houston on June 7 2014 while the BMO Field will host Canada v Scotland on June 14.

Rugby Canada made the announcement that Scotland would be playing at the BMO Field during the match between Canada and the Maori All Blacks On November 3 at the same ground. The match saw the attendance for the June test match against Ireland beaten as 22,566 attended the non-international. After the match the Maori All Blacks backed-up by facing the USA five days later at PPL Park in Philadelphia. Similar to the matches against Ireland earlier in the year it was the lower ranked USA Eagles that came closest to winning against the New Zealanders. Much more important than the result though was the success that both unions had in hosting the matches. PPL Park was at capacity as 18,500 people gathered to see the USA lose 29-19 after the home side had been within three points late in the contest.

Aside from attracting strong crowds for these rugby fixtures BMO Field, BBVA Compass Stadium and PPL Park all have one thing in common - like the SubHub Center in Los Angeles which hosted USA v Tonga in 2013 they are Major League Soccer stadiums. They are home to Toronto FC, Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union. With stadiums seating between 18,000 and 27,000 they are all larger than Gloucester´s Kingsholm Stadium which is to seat 16,500 during Rugby World Cup 2015 and has been allocated four matches, one of which is Scotland v Japan (Asia 1). 

The Major League Soccer venues presently being utilized by Rugby Canada and USA Rugby are therefore all large enough to host Rugby World Cup matches and they also all have IRB approval. One venue which does not is BC Place in Vancouver. Indeed the increased concentration of top fixtures in Toronto is due not only to the success of the BMO Field but also due to the surface at BC Place lacking IRB approval. Rugby Canada officials have publicly stated that the province of British Columbia will host matches similar to Canada v Ireland when the venue meets the IRB standards. 

BC Place is another Major League Soccer venue. In total there are nineteen teams involved in the 2013 competition with Los Angeles being home to two of them. Canada has three teams (Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver) and the USA sixteen with the geographical distribution being broad in the continental U.S. with the exception being the South-East Atlantic region which has no teams. The USA hosted Canada in Charleston, South Carolina earlier this year and the Eagles will face Uruguay also in the South-East in March 2014 in a Rugby World Cup qualifier taking place at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia.

In terms of rugby at other Major League stadiums the list is in no way small. The USA hosted Wales at  the 20,000 seater Toyota Park in Chicago in 2009, Uruguay played at the similiar sized Rio Tinto Stadium outside of Salt Lake City, Utah in 2008 while Churchill Cup matches were played at the 25,000 Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and the 17,484 capacity Dick´s Sporting Goods Park in Denver, Colorado. The Commonwealth Stadium seating over 50,000 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada also has experience in hosting Churchill Cup rugby while the annual USA Sevens which takes place at the 36,800 capacity Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada is highly successful.

Another crucial point is that unlike the vast majority of stadiums being used for Rugby World Cup 2015 these venues are overwhelmingly council owned and are therefore not the property of soccer clubs. In the case of England 2015 the tournament organizers only have one match in Manchester, two in Birmingham, Brighton and Leeds but eight in Cardiff, a city located outside of England. Rugby World Cup 2011 was hosted exclusively by New Zealand with five of the twelve venues - Invercargill, Napier, Nelson, Palmerston North and Whangarei all having smaller capacities than BMO Field. Put differently with two larger venues in Canada and the USA used for key matches and Major League Soccer stadiums also being used the facilities exist for a very successful Rugby World Cup which could be genuinely co-hosted. 

With the IRB requiring a venue seating 60,000 for the Rugby World Cup opening match and the final North America would appear to be very well placed as a genuine option, possibly for 2031. Such a scenario could be viewed as a pipedream but this would not only be ignoring the immense progress that has seen interest boom, as reflected by attendances, but also that leading figures are looking at the North American market.  New Zealand is wanting to play in the New York area in 2014 while the IRB allocated matches to Canada and the USA in the 2013 Pacific Nations Cup while neither played in Oceania. Argentina 2023 would greatly increase the likelihood of a North American co-hosted event. A return to Ireland or South Africa would not. With time on its side the governing bodies of rugby in North America could be sitting on a goldmine.

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