Kickin’ It Vegas Style

by patrick everson

It would appear that “7” is indeed a lucky number when it comes to major international rugby finding favor right here in Las Vegas. The USA Sevens Rugby tournament makes its annual stop in Vegas from March 3–5, taking over Sam Boyd Stadium. Amateur rugby competition is scheduled at the adjacent Star Nursery and Silver Bowl fields as well.

Seven players per side, seventh year — and for the first time, a women’s tournament, too, which will field more seven-player squads.

Prior to moving the USA Sevens to Las Vegas, the tournament was held at the Home Depot Center (now StubHub Center) near Los Angeles, then at the cavernous Petco Park in San Diego. The event has proven to be a far better match here, melding the world’s second-largest sport with an international destination.

“When we were looking to relocate, we worked with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Las Vegas Events to bring to Las Vegas a global event in a sport that was growing,” said Rob Cornelius, vice president of business development for Las Vegas-based USA Sevens and United World Sports.

“We thought, ‘Let’s look at this and see what we can do. In the first year, we drew the same amount of fans as at Petco Park (24,000). Each year, this event has grown; the sport has grown and is now built into the Olympics. Last year, we had 84,000 (attendees) over the weekend.”

The men’s tournament features 16 teams spanning the globe, including traditional powers Fiji and South Africa, winners of the past four tournaments in Vegas (South Africa, 2013–14; Fiji, 2015–16). Standouts New Zealand, England and Canada are in the mix, and, of course, the United States.

The success of the event is quickly putting it on par with other tournaments on the HSBC Sevens Series.

“There’s 10 stops around the world doing this event, and some are getting over 100,000 fans. “Vegas (ultimately) should be better than that. It’s a global entertainment destination,” Cornelius said.

“We have a very unique opportunity. Vegas gives the excuse to come here, and we need to create the business around it; we need to add other assets that attract even casual fans and non-rugby fans.”

In fact, that’s already happening. If you think the action on the field is impressive, just wait until you see the party in the stands.

“You’ve got fans from 16 countries celebrating the sport; celebrating food, culture, sport, music,” Cornelius said. “They are there to celebrate that international culture, and when you walk around that stadium, you feel it.”

As international as the USA Sevens tournament may be — 95 percent of attendees travel to Las Vegas, including 30 percent from out of the country — it’s also proven to be an outstanding attraction for Las Vegans. And not just for the rugby.

“It’s a great thing for locals, even if you don’t understand or know rugby,” he said. “We have the international food and wine festival, travel and tourism vendors from all the countries. You could go out for the culture event itself and be introduced to rugby.”

And this year, you get the top 12 women’s rugby teams, too. All of them competed in the 2016 Olympics, where Rugby Sevens drew rave reviews for both the men’s and women’s tourneys.

“Having the male and female Olympians coming out of an Olympics where rugby was a huge success … in our city is very unique,” Cornelius said. “The women’s tournament will be here the next three years, as well. We’re very excited about that.”

Events are going on the entire week, including the popular Adopt-A-Country program at various Clark County School District campuses, which are part of USA Sevens’ extensive community outreach. The Parade of Nations takes place on Thursday night, March 2, at Fremont Street Experience and international play runs Friday through Sunday.

“For six to eight hours a day, it is a festival,” Cornelius said. “The rugby is entertainment, but the fans and the culture is the better entertainment piece. We’re trying to create a bucket-list event.”