Turning Sin City into rugby country
January 24, 2014
The USA Sevens team is becoming ever-more popular in Las Vegas - here was their welcome last year to the Monte Carlo Resort and Casino in 'Sin City' © Getty Images
Oscar Goodman knows Las Vegas better than most. He held the position of mayor from 1999 through to 2011 and when you look to find out exactly what life in 'Sin City' is really like; he sums it up, simply saying: "Hatred is not what Las Vegas is about".
This weekend the IRB Sevens World Series road show rolls into Vegas as America looks to expand rugby's appeal in the country while hoping to capitalise on the good-feeling of the place.
When ex-Wasps and Gloucester boss Nigel Melville took on the chief executive role of USA Rugby back in 2006, the inaugural American leg of the Sevens World Series had, two years previous, drawn 15,800 supporters in Los Angeles. Last year there were 67,341 who flocked through the gates in Vegas to witness some of the world's finest Sevens players.
American rugby is experiencing huge growth with the sport's governing body's revenue more than doubling since Melville took charge from $5.3m up to $13m. You could forgive Melville if he feels slightly chuffed with what he has achieved, but there's no sign of him kicking back and enjoying the moment.
"Back then we had 50,000 players and a small budget," Melville told ESPN. "We're up to 115,000 with programmes across the country. There's been significant progress but it doesn't happen overnight, we need to get more players through that pathway.
Nigel Melville - the man charged with growing American rugby © Getty Images
"We're developing, we're growing. We've got more and more people playing the game which means we have better players coming through our system, through our youth, High School and college pathway and working their way into the clubs. There's a lot of excitement about the game going forward.
"We have 25 men and 19 women full-time athletes at the Olympic Training Centre (Chula Vista, California) and we have a lot of good players challenging for residency spots."
Life isn't bad for Melville in USA. When we spoke, he was at the training centre in San Diego helping players with their kicking in a balmy 86 degrees. While coaching isn't part of his immediate remit, as he attempts to grow the game in America he has taken on a jack-of-all-trades approach.
From Sevens through to the domestic side of the game, broadcasting rights and qualification for the 2015 World Cup, Melville's day is varied. While the Sevens side of America's rugby scene is developing and becoming ever-more professional - they have 44 players (men and women) on full-time contracts, including speedster Carling Isles - they are still attempting to catch up on the domestic XV scene.
The country has no shortage of talent; a recent count of Europe's three top leagues sees 12 Americans playing including the outstanding Samu Manoa. Back in the USA, Melville has plans to introduce a professional six-team league with the hope that one day those stars will be playing on home soil rather than foreign turf, but funding is the issue.
One place the funding does not appear to be coming from, at present, is National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) - the body who pumps huge amounts of money into various college sports. Rugby is still predominantly a 'club' sport and does not receive this funding.
Despite this lack of financial aid, USA Rugby has 900 college programmes across the country with over a million children involved in the organisation's youth programme. But the jewel in the crown is still turning the current amateur league into a professional one.
"The big missing piece for us is professional rugby and a professional rugby tournament," Melville added. "That requires a large amount of money. We're still a small Union and we have plenty of competition from other sports.
"We have a good business plan which people can see, we have investors looking at it so we just need to move that forward."
The USA side pushed the Maoris close © Getty Images
Alongside the USA's Sevens team, the other big chance to show off the game and help achieve the required funding comes through their Test side, the US Eagles. Last November they played the NZ Maoris in front of 18,500 supporters in Philadelphia and despite having none of their pro players, kept it to a three-point game with five minutes left. They also rolled over Georgia and Russia but Tests against Tier One nations are kept to one a year - 2013's was against Ireland in June - which means come the World Cup, the Eagles are exposed to a huge step-up in quality.
While their cross-border rivals Canada have already qualified for the 2015 World Cup, beating the Eagles, USA get another chance to get to the tournament when they face Uruguay in March in a two-legged play-off. The importance of this for American rugby cannot be underestimated and is essential in continuing their recent on and off-field growth.
"It's absolutely crucial. We've got Uruguay home and away and in the past couple of World Cups that's how we've qualified. Our goal this year, in March is to qualify."
Before the attention switches to that key qualifier, all the focus will be on Las Vegas this weekend. The decadent Hong Kong Sevens have acted as a catalyst for the growth of the game in Asia and Melville hopes the equivalent can happen with the tournament this weekend.
"It's very important to us and we want it to grow, it's essential to everything we do. We want it to be special, successful and for people to come and visit it."
For Melville, his passion for the game is the same as when he ran out for Otley and then won his 13 England caps. England's still home but there's still plenty of work to be done in America.
"I love the passion for the game here in the USA and despite the geographical and financial challenges that come with playing a niche sport, we are growing and our programmes are developing and getting stronger. I love life over here, there's more growth in the game to come and exciting times ahead for the game of rugby in America."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.