In many ways the Collegiate Rugby Championship is at a similar place to the USA Sevens a few years ago before that tournament made its move to Las Vegas. In the early years of the USA Sevens tournament it bounced around from L.A. and San Diego and saw growth in some areas while staying stagnant in others. Eventually the tournament found its footing and has seen major growth over the last few years, especially in television coverage. That increased interest is driving in more fans each year and making the tournament the centerpiece of the American rugby calendar.
The CRC already has the television attention, albeit not in a way that pleases most die-hard rugby fans, by being on NBC but it continually struggles in attendance and relevance. This year the tournament drew a little more that 17,000 fans over two days. That is a decrease from the previous year despite the tournament adding four more teams, most of them local. Don’t misunderstand, getting 17,000 fans to watch rugby over a weekend and getting rugby on NBC is a big deal, but when the Eagles are now regularly brining in similar numbers and tournaments like the Varsity Cup also doing well that no longer cuts it to simply have rugby on television it has to be good rugby.
What the CRC needs to do is what the USA Sevens did years ago and change locations. That said, finding an ideal location is difficult. One of the reasons why Philadelphia was chosen after the first edition was held in Columbus, Ohio was the number of universities in the Philadelphia area or within driving distance. Columbus hard horrible attendance and it made for a sour atmosphere on television. By moving to Philadelphia organizers could invite teams like Drexel, Kutztown, Temple, Penn, and St. Joseph’s all while having schools like Penn State, Navy, and Maryland all within a close distance. This added to the attendance but now it seems that even among these schools the enthusiasm is waning.
The tournament still needs a number of local schools to draw in fans but they also need teams that are competitive. Of the six schools from Pennsylvania, only Kutztown and Penn State made the quarterfinals. Temple and Penn finished in the Shield and St. Joe’s and Drexel in the Bowl. While you can’t question the desire and the amount of sacrifice those teams put in it’s simply the facts that they aren’t the best rugby schools.
The problem is that there aren’t a lot of those areas around the country that also have enough quality college teams. Really the only apparent place in the country is L.A. or the Bay Area, with a preference to the latter. The Bay Area not only offers great facilities but it offers a strong college fanbase ready to support their teams. Cal would get a strong showing from their fans as would St. Mary’s. The Gaels would also strengthen the quality on the field. Add in teams like Santa Clara and Cal Poly and suddenly the local sides could make more of an impact. Northern California also isn’t too far for teams like UCLA, San Diego State, San Diego, and Oregon to bring fans.
United World Sports, who owns and runs the CRC, should be happy adding those teams because it also gives the competition more brand name schools. This year the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Arizona were all brought in to do just that. All of those teams could still compete on the West Coast. In fact, you can add even more adjacent teams like former champion Utah, Arizona State, Colorado, and Air Force. Imagine a 20 team competition that featured Cal, Michigan, Ohio State, Navy, UCLA, Notre Dame, Dartmouth, Arizona, Life, St. Mary’s, Utah, Army, Air Force, San Diego State, San Diego, Cal Poly, Santa Clara, Arizona State, Colorado, and Kutztown. That would be a strong competition.
In terms of fan expectations and making it appealing for a television audience shrinking the size of the venue and creating a demand for tickets would help. Buck Shaw Stadium on the campus of Santa Clara University holds 11,500 fans and has a great pitch. The stadium is currently occupied by the San Jose Earthquakes but they will be moving into a new stadium in the next few years creating more of an opening for rugby. A full and vibrant Buck Shaw Stadium on three nights would make for great television.
The bottom line to any future decision is money. The folks at United World Sports aren’t in it to support the game of rugby—although the love the game—they are in it to make money. There is no way that sponsorships and attendance covered the cost of the CRC last weekend. If the tournament is to survive in the long-term they need to make a change beginning next year.