After three years of managing an international rugby tournament at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Ray Peterson longed for something better.
More fans, more excitement, more camaraderie, and more growth potential.
Relegated to running a tournament that ended in the United States in February, Peterson took a tour of possible warm-weather venues in Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Then he accepted an invitation to look at San Diego.
“I saw Petco Park, and saw the Gaslamp Quarter, and compared that to Home Depot and Carson, and said to myself ‘This is not too terribly difficult a choice.’ ”
In July, Peterson signed a five-year agreement to stage the rugby matches, called the IRB World Sevens Series International Rugby Tournament and Festival, at Petco Park on Feb. 10 and 11.
The festival component is one of the reasons Peterson, managing director of USA Sevens LLC, wanted out of Carson. While the Home Depot Center was a fabulous venue for the sport and fans, “It was in the middle of nowhere.”
Rugby, more than many other sports, isn’t just about playing a game. It’s about getting together and hoisting one with mates after the game.
A Major Sport
Peterson, a former amateur, said the sport is the world’s third largest behind soccer and cricket.
While relatively unknown in the States, rugby regularly draws crowds of 80,000-plus in such countries as England, Australia, New Zealand (where it’s that nation’s biggest sport), and South Africa. All British Commonwealth nations for sure, but rugby is also huge in Argentina, Chile, France, Samoa and Tonga.
“It’s just like our baseball players or football stars here,” Peterson said. “The best rugby players can’t walk down the street in their countries without getting recognized and mobbed. They’re like rock stars.”
A forerunner of U.S. football, rugby started at the Rugby School in England in 1823. The ball resembles the spherical oval used in U.S. football, except it’s white.
And, like football, the goal is to move the ball across an opponent’s goal line, either by running (a try, worth five points), kicking (conversion, two points) or drop kicking (three points). The ball can be passed backward and laterally, but not forward.
The field is 110 yards long.
Rugby’s 15 players don’t wear padding or helmets. The San Diego tournament will feature a variation on the rugby game with only seven players on each side, and only 14 minutes to a game.
“Every 20 minutes, because of television advertising, there will be two more teams on the field,” said Dan Lyle, a former professional rugger who is working for the tournament. “There’ll be 24 matches on Saturday and 20 on Sunday.”
An International Event
The tournament will draw teams from 16 nations, including the United States. However, the United States isn’t favored, though it has a chance, according to Lyle, who played eight years professionally in England.
The other nations competing are Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, England, Fiji, France, Kenya, New Zealand, Portugal, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and the West Indies.
Fans often show up dressed in traditional garb from their countries, wave national flags, and get rowdy, but in a good-natured way, said Peterson.
“The closest I’d say this is like is the USC-UCLA football game where the fans are going crazy, and it’s back and forth one side of the stadium to the other, and it’s nonstop partying,” he said.
Peterson said folks worried about fights from overly exuberant and possibly drunken fans shouldn’t be.
“The saying goes soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. And rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen.”
While attending a tournament in Hong Kong last year, Peterson said he looked hard to detect fan violence, but couldn’t find it. “They’re there to have a party, and good time.”
Peterson said the tournament should generate $5 million to $15 million in direct spending, and should put San Diego on the map for many international viewers. He said the contract he has with Versus has a potential audience of 187 million viewers in 130 countries. Last year’s TV audience totaled 37 million.
“This event is going to get very big very fast,” Peterson said. “Once San Diego sees what this is all about, and given the makeup of the city’s population, and combining the fun, party element with world class athleticism it’s going to be wild.”
Just how big wasn’t lost on some of the city’s leaders who showed up a meeting with Peterson last summer. At a lunch, he met Mayor Jerry Sanders, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, along with representatives of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau, the San Diego International Sports Council and the San Diego Padres.
Initially, the Padres were a bit skeptical and didn’t understand how the event would “fit” at Petco Park, but any doubts were soon erased, as the managers of the ballpark did their research.
Since it opened in 2004, Petco Park has hosted an international soccer match between Mexico and Sweden, a Rolling Stones concert, and last year, the final three games of the first ever World Baseball Classic, won by Japan.
As he talked to local sources and others in the sports industry, Petco Park General Manager Richard Andersen soon realized the rugby sevens tournament had only positive reviews.
“We love the fact that there are 16 countries in the tournament, and 22 games per day. It sounds like fun,” Andersen said. “We feel like this is going to be a home run for us, and it fits the mold that we wanted to have for Petco when we started it, that it’s more than just a ballpark.”
Tickets for USA Sevens are priced at $35 per day for general admission to $70 for the best seats. A VIP pass for two days costs $120.