Rugby tournament is major international draw

This weekend, expect to see costumed sports fans playing loud music amid an array of international flags as the fifth annual USA Sevens rugby tournament rolls through Las Vegas.

More than 70,000 fans are gathering at Sam Boyd Stadium through Sunday to watch the Las Vegas leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series, and 35 percent of them are international visitors. While 16 nations’ seven-man teams are playing, fans and cheerleaders will share their cultural traditions with Las Vegas, all in the name of bringing a party to the pitch.

Some will even wear costumes, dressing up like a cow, a cop or a superhero. Whatever suits their fancy.

“You can’t explain it in words,” said Rob Cornelius, vice president of business development for United World Sports, which produces the Las Vegas tournament. “It makes no sense, but it’s just fun.”

A rugby player himself, Cornelius was instrumental in bringing the international tourism draw here five years ago with the help of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Las Vegas Events.

“Vegas fits rugby and rugby fits Vegas,” he said.

Every team plays every day, and only 5 percent of the attendees hail from Las Vegas. Of those who reside in the U.S., many used to live abroad in rugby-loving lands.

This year’s attendance is up from 2013’s 67,000. In fact, the tournament has grown in popularity each year as rugby gains more attention in the U.S., Cornelius said. Five years ago, USA Sevens started with 24,000 attendees. The average spend per visitor from the event is $1,200, all nongaming. USA Sevens brought $24 million into the city last year.

“It is Mardi Gras meets EDC (Electric Daily Carnival) meets the Super Bowl,” Cornelius said. “If you haven’t seen it, you have to see it to understand.”

International visitors include those from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya and Polynesian nations.

“There are a lot of accents in that stadium,” Cornelius said.

The 2013 event drew 17,805 international visitors who spent $18.8 million in nongaming purchases, according to the convention authority.

“It’s an example of a great special event for Las Vegas that happens to attract a lot of international visitors,” said Michael Goldsmith, vice president of international marketing for the LVCVA.

About 31 percent of the attendees last year were international.

The reason? Fans will follow rugby matches around the globe. This tournament is particularly helpful to Las Vegas tourism, though, because it attracts a large contingent from Canada, Australia and the U.K., all three big international draws for the city.

“We’ve got offices in a number of the countries and use this event as another reason why these people should come to Vegas,” Goldsmith said.

Kenyan Ambassador Jean Njeri Kamau is attending for the first time.

“I’m quite excited to be here,” she said.

Obviously, she’s here to support the Kenyan team and rally Kenyans in the U.S. community. Kamau said the number of U.S.-based Kenyans attending could be as high as 5,000. Kenyans living around the world are attending, too, here from locales such as Kenya, London, Germany, Latin America and Brazil.

“It’s really important for us to come out and support our team,” Kamau said.

Rugby is one of the top sports in the country, as Kenya has been a rugby nation with a proud sporting heritage for more than 50 years.

“There’s a strong cultural energy that blends and brings an opportunity for fans to share such an exciting opportunity,” Kamau said.

USA Sevens also brings a lot of outside attention to Las Vegas as it’s televised on NBC Sports. It will run live domestically today and Sunday and via feed to 142 countries. About 330 million people are expected to watch this year.

In 2015, the Las Vegas tournament will serve as an Olympic qualifier for the first rugby sevens competition during the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Cornelius plans to add a rugby expo in 2015 that will extend rugby’s presence in the city by a few days. The location is yet to be determined.

He said the tournament will be in Las Vegas indefinitely.

“We’re here, we love Las Vegas. We want to continue to grow,” said Cornelius, who’s locally based.

To further ingratiate itself in the community, United World Sports has partnered with the Clark County School District to expose children to the cultures involved with the sport. Sixteen schools were assigned one of the participating rugby teams, which then works with the children to teach them about cultural and language aspects related to the team’s home country. Eight other schools have added rugby to their physical education programs.

This weekend, 2,000 children are attending as part of the partnership.

Cornelius also is working on a local medical symposium about head injuries and concussions featuring doctors from the NHL and NFL, and leading specialists on head trauma related to the sport of rugby. The event is in its third year.

United World Sports LLC hosts a lineup of international sports events, including the Las Vegas Invitational, America’s Rugby Seven’s Cup, the College Rugby Championship, the Varsity Cup and the Pro Soccer Challenge.

Contact reporter Laura Carroll at lcarroll@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4588. Follow @lscvegas on Twitter.

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