Sports

Sacramento to host new professional rugby team at Cal Expo

Nick Nicora, a vice president of concessionaire Spectra, left, congratulates PRO Rugby CEO Douglas Schoninger after Tuesday’s announcement of Sacramento’s rugby team. The team will play at Bonney Field in Cal Expo.
Nick Nicora, a vice president of concessionaire Spectra, left, congratulates PRO Rugby CEO Douglas Schoninger after Tuesday’s announcement of Sacramento’s rugby team. The team will play at Bonney Field in Cal Expo. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Sacramento was named Tuesday as the first of six cities to host teams playing in a new professional rugby league.

The new team, which has yet to be named, will play at Bonney Field, home of the city’s Republic FC professional soccer team.

The inaugural PRO Rugby 10-game season would begin play in April. The remaining five cities are expected to be named later this week.

“Sacramento’s support of USA and international rugby games during the California State Fair proved that there is strong demand for professional competition in the Sacramento region” said Douglas Schoninger, PRO Rugby CEO. “We look forward to connecting fans with this new team and the league.”

Within the rugby community, Sacramento is considered a hotbed of interest. The Northern California Youth Rugby Association is one of the largest in the United States, with 200 teams and 5,300 players from under-8 through high school. Adult clubs have 2,000 players, according to league officials. Jesuit High School’s team is considered one of the best in the nation and regularly produces some of the nation’s best prospects.

“They won’t have a problem selling out,” said Paul Kessler, president of Rugby NorCal, the youth rugby organization.

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Over the summer, the U.S. national team, known as USA Rugby Eagles, played Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup at a nearly sold-out Bonney Field.

The strong attendance and the unique fairgrounds atmosphere, with a Ferris wheel and water slides surrounding the field, helped Sacramento’s case, Schoninger said.

“Sacramento wasn’t on my personal radar until I came out to the Eagle-Japanese game,” Schoninger said. “When I came here, I said, ‘We have to include Sacramento.’ What we are trying to do with rugby is we’re trying to Americanize it for American audiences. There is nothing more American than this place.”

“It was really really unique,” he said.

Schoninger said Sacramento will be among the smaller of the six cities to host teams. The league, which has been sanctioned by the national and international rugby bodies, is on an aggressive timeline to begin. Ticket sales are expected to open in January. Teams will play under the city’s name and an assigned color during the inaugural season, Schoninger said. During the year, teams will create contests to name the teams.

Teams will have a mix of players including higher-level international stars and Americans on the national team. Schoninger said players will be paid competitively based on their earnings capability. He wasn’t ready to say what tickets might sell for.

Cal Expo and the food and beverage provider Spectra are teaming up to operate the team.

“As home to the oldest professional sport in Sacramento, horse racing, and the newest professional sport, soccer, Cal Expo is honored to provide a platform for the historic launch of professional rugby,” CEO Rick Pickering said.

Mike Sophia, director of the Sacramento Sports Commission, said while there is a niche to be served, as with all new professional sports leagues, fans will have to see how the business operation shakes out.

“These are all new ventures,” Sophia said. “You kind of have to see how it develops.”

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch

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