Whatever becomes of Major League Rugby in the years to come, one thing is certain: It had its start in Sugar Land.
On Thursday it said goodbye.
Last year Constellation Field served as a temporary home for the Houston SaberCats, one of seven teams in Major League Rugby, a new professional league getting started in the United States. The team played a nine-week exhibition season at the baseball stadium before moving on to Dyer Stadium for their regular season. In the meantime, the City of Houston began construction of Aveva Stadium at the Houston Sports Park.
The new stadium was supposed to be ready for this season but construction has been delayed by bad weather. That prompted a return to Constellation Field for the first half of the season and even the extension of another week due to construction delays. Originally, Thursday’s match against the Utah Warriors was supposed to be played Saturday as the inaugural game at Aveva. Instead the first game scheduled there will be April 13 against the Seattle Seawolves. A grand opening of the stadium is scheduled for May 11.
Thursday’s match at Constellation Field served as a showcase for Major League Rugby as the board of directors, team owners, and league commissioner were all in attendance.
“We want to thank Constellation and the Skeeters. They came to our assistance when we were struggling with fields and it’s been a good partnership with them and they had a great baseball season last year after us and so hopefully we’ll bring them some luck,” said Marty Power, SaberCat’s co-founder with Jeremy Turner, one of the owners. “We’re really looking forward to going to our own stadium, Aveva, because it’s rugby centric and it’s a minor league ballpark but it’s a nice minor league ballpark and real professional amenities, so everybody will enjoy it.”
MLR Commissioner Dean Howes had a tour of the new stadium before coming over to Constellation for the match between the SaberCats and Wariors.
“It’s a beautiful stadium. It’s clearly got a little work left to be done on it but some of the seats were in and there’s going to be a seat in every one. It is the second rugby-specific stadium and the first that was designed just for professional rugby here in the United States, so I couldn’t be more excited,” he said, noting that the first rugby stadium is in Glendale, Colo., where the Raptors play.
Howes said he is grateful for the use of Constellation Field and the support of the fans.
“Thank you, Constellation, right, I mean it’s a lovely stadium but it’s obviously set up for baseball and rugby isn’t baseball so we have to do some adjustments, but it’s a beautiful stadium. The facility’s great, the pitch is nice, so the grass is down and it looks wonderful and we couldn’t be more pleased with the hospitality that they’ve given us,” he said.
Lee Tedstone, vice president of digital solutions for North America Aveva, said he can’t wait for the new stadium to open.
“We’re really excited about the new stadium; really excited about the contribution to rugby here locally in Houston, that that new stadium will bring,” he said. “We feel it’s home to the SaberCats; it’s a place for the fans to go, it’s a place for the fans to get centered around the team. I feel we’ve been missing a bit of that for the team and so it’s really exciting for us and as rugby supporters and for Aveva as an organization. It’s a big put back for us into the community we’re delighted to contribute to the community and we really, really hope that the stadium is going to be a success and that it’s a place where Houstonians can go and have good family fun and a game of rugby,” he said.
As the SaberCats depart, the Skeeters are wasting no time converting the rugby pitch back into a baseball park.
“So tonight we’ll take down the goal posts. Those will be taken down and this weekend we have the Lebanese Festival, and then starting on Tuesday the grounds crew will come in and extract all the grass that’s over the typical dirt, mound and plate and then they’ll build the mound to specs, the home plate, the baselines and the infield. So it will all be done within a week and a half,” said Skeeters Events Coordinator Matt Thompson. “It’s a pretty quick changeover but they’ll get it done.”
“They’ll work on it constantly for days until they get it where it needs to be, probably for a week,” said Skeeters General Manager Tyler Stamm. “They’ll be able to work on it 9 to 5 and get it cranked out in a week.”
Stamm said the stadium will be ready for college games and spring training in mid-April and the Skeeters Opening Day on April 25.
With Major League Rugby saying farewell to Constellation Field, Commissioner Howes feels the future for rugby is strong in Houston and across the country.
“I think it’s going great. We have a couple more teams playing this year with New York and Toronto that joined the original seven that played last year,” he said. “We have 13 members, so we actually have 13 markets where we will have teams in the future. Twelve of them will play next year, so we’re very pleased with both our growth and extremely pleased with the guys. If you came to a game last year and you see the speed of the game, the technical aspects of the game, you would be as excited as I am. It’s made just wonderful improvement year over year on the technical aspects of the game on the pitch.”
He said the league hasn’t grown as fast as he would like, but he is pleased with the prospects.
“Rugby has every right to grow and be a major sport here in the United States. It’s a great sport; it’s easy to count; as Americans we love to count. It’s a great sport that translates to TV; it’s constant action and yet it’s intimate, you can take close shots, you can take back shots, so when you compare it media-wise to a lot of other sports, rugby is a wonderful sport that converts very well to the television and to the visual media and it’s just as intimate and fun to watch inside of a stadium.”
He said he sees a professional league as a foundation for building the sport in America.
“We clearly need to get more kids involved,” he said. “We clearly need to have more high schools sponsoring teams and that’s our job to do. That’s the beauty of having a league. It sits on top of 13 and soon to be 14, 15, or 16 markets and the people that are in those local markets are going to set up academies, they’re going to set up training. These professional athletes are going to be out in the communities and encouraging kids and because there is a major league, it’s going to be an aspirational destination for these kids so when they do watch it they go, ‘you know what, I can be that guy, I can keep my cleats on for a little bit longer.’”
Power, the SaberCats co-owner, hopes to build interest by having an entertaining, family-friendly atmosphere at Aveva Stadium.
“It’ll be an entertaining evening between the music and the scoreboards that we have and the entertainment we have planned, so we’re really looking forward to it,” he said. “Now, if we can only get our team to play a little better than 1 and 5, which we hope to, and rugby’s a long season. We’ve got 10 games left and we have some players coming in that we found as replacement players because we’ve lost a bunch to injury early, unlucky, but, so, looking forward to it. When we have the grand opening on May 11 it’ll be a lot of fun.”