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Friday, Feb 3, 2023

50,000 Expected at Petco for North America’s Largest Rugby Event

If more mothers would let their children play rugby, the world would be a much better place.

Sound crazy? Not to Dan Lyle, a former Player of the Year who is helping to put on the USA Sevens tournament at Petco Park on Feb. 9 and 10.

Sure, rugby is a physical, brutal game. Think football without the pads. And yet, the level of respect among players and true fans is something the world could use a lot more of, says Lyle.

“There’s a tradition in rugby. You can have an absolute war on the field, but after the game, all the players line up, shake hands and go have a beer together,” Lyle said.

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In a world where breaking rules and thuggery prevail in many professional sports, rugby football revels in sportsmanship and tradition.

“You don’t see fighting in the stands at rugby games anywhere in the world. All that stuff is sorted out on the field,” he said. And don’t even think of yelling at the referee, which is considered bad form and can warrant nasty penalties, he adds.

Steinlager beer of New Zealand is the presenting sponsor of this year’s event, which has sold about 10,000 tickets and anticipates a crowd of 45,000 to 50,000 this year, according to tournament organizers. It’s the largest rugby event in North America, according to the tournament Web site.

San Diego got a taste of international rugby in February 2007 at the inaugural Sevens tournament held at Petco, the downtown home of the San Diego Padres. The ballpark has also hosted an international soccer match and a Rolling Stones concert.

The two-day tournament that features teams from 16 nations drew about 30,000 fans last year.

“This year’s event will make last year’s pale in comparison,” said Managing Director Ray Peterson, who said shortly after last year’s tournament that the event generated an estimated $14 million in direct and indirect spending.

One big reason for his optimism is a bigger and more varied fan festival that will take place at the Park at the Park within the confines of the 42,000-seat ballpark itself. Last year, the festival was held outside of Petco, and wasn’t exactly the kind of experience that organizers were hoping for. This year, the festival has moved closer to the action and will allow fans to view the games on a large TV screen. The festival will also feature live music, international food booths and a children’s interactive sporting area.

Action-Packed Sport

As far as action goes, few sports can match what rugby sevens has. By limiting each side to seven players (eight fewer than rugby union football), scores come far quicker. That’s essential since the games last but 14 minutes.

Teams face off against the three other nations in their pool, and the competition features 44 games in all. The action starts at 10 a.m. and runs to 7 p.m.

On the second day, winners are weeded out and paired with winners from three other pools until the championship game, scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 for a one-day pass to $400 for a two-day club level package that includes lunch and drinks.

Last year, Fiji captured the title in a match against Samoa. The event at Petco Park is part of an eight-tournament series that has made stops in South Africa, Dubai and New Zealand.

In San Diego, the teams set to compete are: New Zealand, Scotland, Wales and France in Pool A; Fiji, Samoa, Australia and the West Indies in Pool B; Argentina, Kenya, Canada and Chile in Pool C; and South Africa, England, the United States and Mexico in Pool D.

Lyle says in the earlier tournaments, the best teams were New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa. The U.S. Eagles broke out of a long slump in Petco Park last year with an exciting, upset victory vs. Kenya, and advanced to the quarterfinals before being eliminated.

A Fiesta For Fans

Peterson says the Petco Park experience last year turned out better than tournament organizers had expected, and with some modifications, especially to the fan festival, this year’s event should generate even greater buzz. Another nice coincidence is the event’s timing, right on the heels of Mardi Gras, on Feb. 5.

“Ultimately, the one objective that we have from a marketing standpoint is the event becomes known as Rugby Week,” he said.

To this end, the Sevens event is sponsoring a San Diego Invitational tournament Feb. 6-9, featuring games for youths, high school and college students, as well as club, masters, international women, and coed touch rugby players.

Before it was held at Petco Park last year, the tournament was played in The Home Depot Center in Carson. A major reason Peterson moved the Sevens event from Carson in 2006 was the proximity of so many restaurants and bars to Petco. Without the entertainment element, the event really didn’t capture much of a following in Carson, he says.

Last year, the Sevens event turned the Gaslamp Quarter into a mini-Olympic village after the games, prompting even greater participation by the eateries this year, he says.

In its inaugural year, the Sevens tournament drew mainly hard-core rugby fans; newbies made up only about a quarter of the group, says Lyle.

“Our biggest challenge is to get people to the stadium because once they see it, we know they will love it,” he said.

Said Peterson: “This is a combination of everything, a world-class athletic event, but it’s also got the entertainment experience. It’s something that hasn’t been duplicated.”


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