The USA’s North American 4 program is fast becoming a significant cost center with unproven commercial and development value, a precarious position for the International Rugby Board-subsidized event.
Only about 400 watched Saturday’s match of unbeatens between the Falcons and Canada West – counting competitors in a concurrent high school invitational tourney – a figure well short of the 2,600 who viewed Cal and BYU in the previous weekend’s collegiate final.
At $10 a ticket, the income from such a meager NA4 gate would not have paid for event costs of the Wednesday and Saturday games, even before factoring in the bill for travel and lodging, food, kit and training supplies, per diems, and other expenditures surrounding the weeklong assembly of four teams. Losses could have reached $75,000 and higher, according to people familiar with the matter.
Only last year, executives said that two teams would be added in 2008 and the competition eventually would be professionalized as USA Rugby and Rugby Canada partnered with private investors. “Cities and private owners will take ownership of the franchises,” one official predicted.
But Palo Alto’s poor crowds and media coverage, coupled with sparse first-round turnout in San Diego, is discouraging because the San Francisco Bay Area and its southern California counterpart are two of American rugby’s hotbeds, with large playing populations, excellent facilities, and knowledgeable sports reporters.
Meanwhile, almost all of the 30-man Churchill Cup squad were on scene before 2007, pointing up that the NA4 is not being used to debut new players. While Canada fielded any number of youngsters with little to no prospect of reaching the 2007 World Cup, including two from its Under 19 squad, the American sides were full of front-line internationals.
Eagle coach Peter Thorburn has clearly stated his intent to use the NA4 to evaluate World Cup hopefuls. Only a handful of players not named in the initial February training camp were picked for this month’s games.
The IRB underwrites the cost of the tournament to the tune of £500,000 (a shade less than $1,000,000 at today’s exchange rate), as part of a worldwide development program. But Dublin has previously cooled to the idea of financing loss-making tournaments, having grown disenchanted with the Pacific Rim Championship earlier this decade.