Pro rugby in Houston area to begin with SaberCats exhibitions in Sugar Land
Without local football to grip the city’s attention, a similar but newly minted professional sport, one with fewer pads and more gentlemanly tackles, will start in the Houston area Saturday night at Constellation Field in Sugar Land.
The SaberCats, one of seven professional rugby teams playing for the newly formed Major League Rugby in the United States, will play the Seattle Saracens in the first of 11 preseason games.
“We’ve dreamed of bringing professional rugby to Houston for a long time,” said Jeremy Turner, the team’s chief executive officer.
Semi-professional rugby teams competed out of Houston in the 1980s and 1990s, but significant financial investment, including a television deal to broadcast 13 regular-season games and the playoffs on CBS Network, will foster long-term viability for MLR, according to SaberCats coach Justin Fitzpatrick.
“Rugby over the last 10 or 15 years has been much more accessible on TV,” Fitzpatrick said. “People don’t look at you blankly, as they would’ve done 20 years ago when somebody talked about rugby.”
The rugby upstart is attempting to model its branding after Major League Soccer, which, although not as popular as international soccer, has grown significantly in the U.S. the last 25 years.
After their preseason at Constellation Field, in April the SaberCats will play their inaugural regular season at an unconfirmed venue closer to Houston, a critical step in rooting the brand locally, Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick expects the franchise to create generations of Houstonians who will wear SaberCats jerseys at social gatherings and players who will compete for the team.
“(Rugby has) got a lot going for it,” he said. “Everybody gets to run with the ball, carry, tackle. It’s a game for all shapes and sizes.”
He does not expect rugby to syphon talent or distract from football in America, despite the changing climate surrounding football-related injuries.
“There’s room for many different sports to be successful in the same cities,” he said. “If you listen to the football coaches, there’s a lot of cross-pollination between football and rugby. … There’s enough for everybody.”