The crowd at an incongruous venue to see visiting Uruguay offers hope that Texas will take Major League Rugby to its heart
Tom Dart at Constellation Field, Sugar Land, Texas
Mon 22 Jan 2018 06.49 EST Last modified on Mon 22 Jan 2018 07.25 EST
It is arguably one of the few professional rugby venues in the world with a carousel at the 50-metre line and a splash pad behind the technical zones. It is certainly the only one with a giant video board in the shape of Texas. Yet these oddball surroundings may be the best evidence so far that high-level club rugby union has a promising future in America.
Constellation Field is the temporary base of the Houston SaberCats ahead of the debut season of Major League Rugby, the latest attempt to glue the sport to the American consciousness.
About 20 miles from downtown Houston, it is the home of the Sugar Land Skeeters, a minor-league baseball team in one of the country’s wealthiest and most ethnically diverse counties. Like many clubs of their ilk, the Skeeters have built a stadium that evinces a certain pessimism about the appeal of their product, hence the playground behind the outfield wall and many other distractions.
At Saturday night’s SaberCats exhibition against Uruguay, though, most spectators seemed to be spectating. The merry-go-round and splash pad were deserted. Even the 15ft inflatable dartboard had few takers.
The attendance – about 3,500 tickets were sold – justified the SaberCats’ gamble that demand to see a new team in an obscure sport is strong enough to warrant hiring a premium venue and charging high prices.
The grass changes from lush to thin and yellowish as the pitch extends from what will be the infield when the Lancaster Barnstormers and Southern Maryland Blue Crabs face the Skeeters this summer. Still, the place has smart facilities and presentation slick enough to make a strong first impression.
A cartoon explainer flickered on the video screen before kick-off, informing spectators that the ball is egg-shaped and that the sport is replete with British jargon. “Please respect the kicker” flashed up during attempts at goal.
Rather than oil industry expats from rugby nations, the crowd appeared to be mostly native-born Americans – something that chimes with the team’s demographic analysis.
The SaberCats performed creditably in a 32-24 defeat by a nation ranked 18th in the world and warming up for a World Cup play-off with Canada.
It was the third of nine pre-season games at Constellation Field, ahead of the April launch of Major League Rugby, which has a deal with CBS Sports and also features teams from Austin, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, Glendale (Colorado), San Diego and Seattle.
Houston signed up for the ballpark when research suggested strong demand. The first match, a win over Seattle Saracens, drew about 5,000. Their second, a defeat by the UBCOB Ravens of Vancouver in adverse weather, about half that.
“We’ve been bowled over by the support, both from the rugby community but probably more importantly from people that aren’t familiar with rugby,” said Justin Fitzpatrick, the former Ulster and Ireland prop who is the SaberCats’ head coach.
“I think what we’ve done is hugely carefully researched,” said Jeremy Turner, the CEO. “Even the step into Constellation Field was based on research. Some of it empirical, that’s for sure, because it’s rugby, which is a lesser-known sport, but basically we worked very hard on making this professional.”
The club will need to find a new temporary venue in the spring but intend to announce a permanent location for next year. Turner said the team was “committed to building a just-over-3,000-seat stadium with all the mod-cons that you need, but we might revisit that in light of the experiences we’re having now”.
Houston has hosted international fixtures and was even proposed last year as the site for a quixotic Pro14 expansion. The SaberCats are backed by a wealthy consortium.
Still, the predators who inspired their name ultimately suffered extinction. The last attempt to birth a US pro league, PRO Rugby, had teams in Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and near Columbus, Ohio. It staged a solitary season in 2016.
“I think there is a genuine belief or we wouldn’t be spending this kind of money, I think that’s really the bottom line,” Turner said. “Clearly it’s in the seven-figures-plus when you include the capital investment, setting up the team and all the million things you have to do to make it work.”
The SaberCats are charging far more for tickets and parking than their landlords. Against Uruguay, the most expensive seats – which sold out – saw 80 people pay $250, including a meal and drinks. An adult ticket for a seat on a grassy bank is $15.
“I think the difference is that the previous attempt was just really quickly thrown together, they just tried to put it out there, there wasn’t any marketing done, they just kind of hoped everything would work out,” said Kyle Sumsion, the SaberCats’ captain.
“The difference is not necessarily what the players are doing, it’s what the people in the back office are doing to really drive this and let us be successful.”
Long before kick-off, Brent Shradar, a 34-year-old season ticket holder, was among the tailgaters in the parking lot, where dozens grilled food and guzzled beer while a band played.
“The ground level, the youth level, is really big right now,” he said. “It’s growing exponentially. And I think it’s gonna surpass American football, in my opinion.”
His dad, John, liked the smaller scale and cheaper prices compared with Houston Texans NFL games. Their friend, Kyle Wilson, a youth pastor, discovered rugby eight years ago in South Africa and was hooked.
“Finding out the SaberCats were here, man, I’m really excited about it,” he said. “Americans, we love the physicality of it and finesse and the beauty of it. The barbaric-ness of it and the beauty of it all in the same moment.
“When Americans can latch into it, I think it’ll grow big time.”
Brent Shradar agreed.
“It’s a mix of soccer, American football and creaming people,” he said. “I think it’s gonna make it, honestly.”