Major League Rugby’s Houston SaberCats began working on their new stadium late last month. Last Word on Rugby spoke with SaberCats staff about the investment, MLR franchise and future prospects.

AVEVA Stadium will be the second-ever stadium dedicated to professional U.S. rugby. It will seat 3,000 Houston Sabercats fans. It will have standing room for 1,000 more fans, and over 1,100 parking spaces. Completion is expected for late January, 2019.

The stadium is part of a 42-acre facility in Houston Sports Park, which will include two more full-size pitches. The Houston City Council approved the site and a $3.2 million deal to help the SaberCats build parking and utilities for the stadium.

Certainly, AVEVA Stadium has received the approval of the City of Houston (including Mayor Sylvester Turner‘s support). But the stadium’s origins, along with MLR, go a bit further back.

Rugby connections and the MLR formation

Major League Rugby (MLR) and SaberCats co-founders Marty Power and Jeremy Turner, and majority franchise owner Mike Loya, were involved with the former Houston Strikers club. Turner played, then coached, the Strikers to the Texas Rugby Union Open Championship in 1995.

About two years ago, Power and Turner and other like-minded individuals in Glendale, CO. began talks of forming the MLR. With the MLR in formation talks, an idea of re-branding the Strikers as the SaberCats surfaced.

“THIS WENT THROUGH CATS, THEN LIGHTSABERS, AND THEN IT KIND OF ALL CAME TOGETHER IN ONE CONVERSATION.”

Turner said in an interview with Last Word on Rugby, that once the name was decided, the group went to work on designing the logo, which is now used by the organization and worn with pride by players and front office staff.

‘Reach for Greatness’ – an image taken from Houston Sabercats Instagram account, 2018
Around the same time, SaberCats President Brian Colona took on a project to build new offices in Houston for Loya’s oil trading company, Vitol. Colona managed operations for Vitol for 19 years before semi-retiring. But as he was working on the project in Houston, he was asked to join forces with Power and Turner to run the SaberCats.

Colona didn’t know anything about rugby until he saw the first SaberCats match. “It has the level of speed, excitement and impact that they’re used to getting out of American football,” Colona said, when asked what he would tell someone in his position before Houston’s inaugural season.

“So that’s a real attraction. But you wind up so much closer to the action. The stadium [AVEVA Stadium] is a boutique-sized stadium, you’ve got a great vantage point from everywhere, and you’re going to see a level of sportsmanship that you rarely see in other sports.”

Two years ago, it may have seemed a bit far-fetched to some that an entire league — let alone a rugby-specific sports complex as planned — would come to fruition. But, with the help of the men from Houston and other stakeholders, the second MLR season (which is just around the corner) will have a new home for the SaberCats in time.

AVEVA Stadium to be fan-focused, with great vantage points

AVEVA Stadium isn’t going to be enormous, but it will have some unique features;

“We’re building great places around the perimeter of the pitch for these 1,000 standing-room-only people and we expect that we’ll get great results from that because we’re giving those folks some really nice vantage points to watch the game from,” Colona said.

Colona said there will be a team shop and concessions on-site. But one of the places to be, he said, will be behind the south try-zone:

“WE’RE BUILDING A BERM UP, THAT’S PROBABLY EIGHT FEET UP FROM THE PITCH LEVEL, AND PLOPPING IN THERE QUITE A NICE BAR.”

The bar will be 50 feet long and 20 feet deep with two sides; a total of ‘140 linear feet’. The fan-focused attention will not stop at the refreshments – a 20-by-50-foot scoreboard will come out of the top of the roof.

This rendering shows some of the AVEVA Stadium proposed ‘raised platforms’ fans will be able to experience a match from. (Photo Credit: Goulas & Associates)
A sloped hill leading up to the bar with a drink rail and raised platforms will be built. About 120 seats will be reserved for fans who purchase VIP seating in the stadium; in the south try-zone area. Colona said this is meant to give VIP guests a chance to move around, stretch and see matches from a different vantage point. To be ‘in the crowd’ but to also have advantages of membership.

Rugby connections and the new stadium design

“Anybody can leave their seat and go down there, grab a beer or refreshment. To watch the game from a different vantage point, and get a sense of that,” he said. Smaller, more intimate venues suit US Rugby, at this stage of it’s growth but as the market grows….the Houston complex would have room to expand seating.

Colona said the other two pitches will not include all of the features the stadium pitch has, but will be used for regional rugby and soccer events. So the formation of the MLR and SaberCats have a rugby connection. What about the name of the stadium? There’s a rugby connection there, too.

Colona said AVEVA Vice President of Digital Business Solutions, Lee Tedstone, was a big fan of Houstons’ head coach Justin Fitzpatrick; from his days playing on the pitch. Tedstone began to reach out to the SaberCats, expressing interest in a sponsorship agreement. AVEVA sponsored Houston’s kits for last season, and will continue to do so in the upcoming 2019 Major League Rugby season.

SaberCats reach out to local community

As part of the City of Houston’s approval of money for the stadium, the city wanted the SaberCats to have some community outreach. The SaberCats organization, however, were already volunteering to have more ourtreach;

“We are absolutely focused — laser-focused — on community outreach, and we’ve done a lot already,” Turner said. “We’ve been around all the clubs, as many schools that would let us in. I think we’ve talked to every rugby program within a 50-mile radius of Houston. We’ve visited all of them, we’ve held camps, and that’s just the rugby community.”

Turner said the SaberCats want to go into Houston inner-city schools to try to create rugby programs. They’ve talked with the Houston Independent School District and are in the process of choosing which schools to go to first.

Houston Sabercats stakeholders at the new AVEVA Stadium groundbreaking. (Photo credit Houston Sabercats facebook page/BigShots Snapshots)

The future of MLR, SaberCats

While the SaberCats are looking to expand their outreach, MLR is seeking to expand its prevalence.

“MLR’s policy is that each team should develop its own stadium,” Turner said. “Obviously, that’s going to take a period of time. Glendale was first, we’re second, New Orleans is already started, Austin is on the way. So ultimately, pretty much every team will have somewhere to play that they can call home.”

There haven’t been any official announcements about expansion teams yet, but Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. – among other cities – are rumored.

“New York and Ontario have had exhibition seasons, but there are a number of cities that are vying to get involved with MLR in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons,” Colona said. “The league is considering all comers and how to build the league in the right way, at the right speed; not to get too big too fast, but to embrace all interests coming kind of from all corners.”

He said Dallas will be an addition to the league in 2020. MLR is planning on two additional teams in 2019, bringing the total to nine. It’s aiming for 12 teams in 2020. While most MLR-related ideas are speculation for now, two things are for certain: AVEVA Stadium is under construction. And, according to Colona, the first match at the stadium ‘will be an MLR game’.

Although the MLR inaugural season recently ended, MLR fans and SaberCats fans alike have some promising opportunities to look forward to: a new stadium, a new season — and perhaps, new experiences. Colona said at the end of each match, fans will have a chance to meet players on the sidelines, get autographs and stick around after the traditional post-match dinner for even further player interaction:

“You’re not going to get that in the NFL, MLB or NBA. It’s just impossible. Even if they wanted to do it, they probably couldn’t pull it off. That’s what happens at the end of an MLR game.”