It was supposed to be a match, where in a country in which the sport is on the rise, to help expose more people, except it was an absolute disaster. If you don’t know to what I’m referring to then I am talking about the Wales-South Africa friendly at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. that just happened recently. It was an absolute blunder.
RFK Stadium, where the Washington Redskins and Nationals used to play, holds a capacity about 45,500 seats. So that is big enough to be a good opportunity for Americans to watch rugby. And after considering over 60,000 were in attendance for matches that were played at Soldier Field in Chicago, there was only 21,357 people at the game in D.C. which is absolutely awful.
So what went wrong? First of all the marketing was horrific. D.C. is a good market to market such a match for a sport that is the fastest growing in this nation. The ticket sales were poor as they should have been able to get more people to come out to this match. If matches that were played in Chicago were so successful, then so should have this one. One of the biggest reasons why it worked in Chicago was that so many former compatriots of countries where rugby is played were turning out for them. In D.C., the city where many across the globe live because of politics, there are so many of those types of people there. It’s amazing how such a golden opportunity was squandered there as I heard from many people that I know in the city (if you haven’t kept up with my columns I am actually a native of Washington, D.C.), both some who like rugby and others who don’t even follow the sport, said they didn’t even realize there was a rugby match happening. If that was the case, my parents, who still live there, probably would have asked me if I wanted to come back to watch the match. Whoever was in charge of marketing the match should be fired.
Another thing that hurt was the lack of star power on the field. Both sides decided to not bring most of their key players for this match and that might have hurt the product on the field. Even some have said that it seemed pointless to even set up the match and that it was all about the money and exposure of the sport. Yes it was a friendly, but that misses the point. It also was bad timing as D.C. was in the thick of watching their beloved hockey team, the Capitals, in the Stanley Cup playoffs as more people in the city were tuned into what was happening with that instead of this match. As a native, Washingtonians will only have playoffs, where their teams are in their respective postseasons, on their minds and won’t think of anything else.
There was also talk about how the match didn’t seem special as there was nothing entertaining about the product surrounding the match. One of those was that there was no music during halftime and there wasn’t even any tailgating. Yes, America might not understand the rugby culture quite yet, but they should have had some people who knew all about that running the show and made the experience better. Maybe that would have had more Americans come out to watch it.
I was sorely disappointed about what happened as I desperately want my home country to embrace such a great sport. This was a great opportunity and it seemed all for naught. I’m sure there will be more opportunities in the future, but you know what they say about first impressions: “You got to make a good first one.”
*An ESPN Article was used to help write this column. It’s also a good read as it delves even deeper into the issues surrounding the match.