Old Glory Needs to Play at Audi Field - Editorial

By Alistair Kirsch-Poole
Feb 23, 2023 - 5:00pm

Audi Field. Image credit: Alistair Kirsch-Poole

San Diego proved something last weekend. In case you missed the news, they attracted a mind-bending, record-breaking 11,423 fans to their season opener. That's an absurd number, smashing the previous record of 7,000 set at the 2021 finals. And keep in mind, last year the Legion averaged less than 2,000 fans per match. This doesn't seem to be a one-time fluke, either, with early predictions for their next match at over 9,000.

This has rewritten what is possible for the MLR, and other teams ought to take note.

How it happened

Needless to say, a team doesn't just end up with 11,423 people at the stadium - this happened because the San Diego Legion made it happen.

The first thing they did was a clear prerequisite: leaving behind the patch of grass on top of a parking garage that was their home in 2022. The Legion is now playing at Snapdragon Stadium, a beautiful new stadium built for the San Diego State Spartans. By all accounts, the new location has been fantastic. It's a modern stadium with excellent amenities in a convenient, easy to access location. The capacity is also a huge increase over their previous field, with space for 20,000 fans.

However, a stadium like that won't fill itself. The San Diego front office put in a massive amount of effort to promote the game and market it to potential new fans. It was definitely a risk, given that no team has ever attracted a crowd over 5,000 for a regular season game. Promotion costs money, and if they'd only been able to attract a few thousand fans after all that I would be writing a very different article.

But that's not what happened. Their risk paid off to a degree that I don't think anyone expected. They proved that you can get people to come if you make the effort to tell them that it's happening, and happening at a place they want to go.

Wake up call

The MLR was founded on the premise of trying to grow slowly. Unlike previous attempts at pro leagues, they set out to grow in a manner that was sustainable, preferring steady and safe progress over rapid and risky growth.

So far, that has paid off. Five years later, the league still exists, still plays games, still pays the bills, and is still growing. The "live to fight another day" mentality kept them upright through the pandemic and through the inevitable chaos of a startup. Leagues don't just spring into existence fully formed, and the cautious approach has allowed them to take survive the stumbles.

The events in San Diego should be a wake up call for the league, though. While caution is all well and good, eventually the league needs to take the next step. They need to break out of the small bubble of rugby enthusiasts and reach a much, much broader audience. Teams cannot subsist forever on a couple thousand fans per match.

Phase three

I've written before that we are in the third phase of the MLR's history. The first was just getting teams on the field playing matches, a process that is longer and harder than people realize. It required sorting out insurance, finding pitches, coming up with a structure, negotiating a league from scratch, and more.

The second phase was to professionalizing the play on the field, the phase we're coming to the end of now. Seattle won the first two shields with essentially an amateur squad. Then LA came along in 2021 with huge talent advantage and dominated the league. Now, padding the roster with club guys is nowhere near enough. I would take all but a couple of this year's teams in a matchup against any team from 2018-2020.

Not every team made it to phase two. The Glendale Raptors were comfortable in phase one, happy with the semi-pro club level competition of the early years. As soon as phase two started and they realized that the standards were going up, they pulled out.

The third phase is the one we're entering now: professionalizing the front office and taking this seriously as a business.

MLR teams have survived to date with shoestring budgets and small administrative staffs. That won't fly for much longer. Teams will need to spend much more on promotion in order to drive game day attendance. They'll need to secure quality fields, whether by moving or by upgrading their existing facilities. The league as a whole will need to get a TV deal and dramatically improve its PR and communications. All of that takes money, it takes effort, and it takes risk. It's also essential if the league is going to get to a point where it can sustain itself.

If I'm being honest, I don't expect every team to survive the transition. The small scale of the league has likely hidden poor management in some teams, which will break them as they try to keep up. Some teams won't have the right people in place, the right vision to know what's necessary, and the right business acumen to make it happen. Some teams will simply get unlucky, like Austin and LA.

As unfortunate as that will be, it won't be a sign that the league is failing. Instead, it will be the league shedding dead weight and becoming healthier in the process. The league will need to part with the teams that can't keep up with the increasing standard of operation.

How this applies to Old Glory

Old Glory DC is one of the better positioned teams to make the phase three transition. They give the impression of being one the league's more stable teams, and they already lead the league in terms of sponsorship revenue. On top of that, they've hired Marcelo Blanco, who is a experienced business mind.

The transition will not happen while the team still plays at Segra, though.

At Segra, there's hard cap on the number of people who will be willing to make the trek halfway to West Virginia. There's a limit to the number of people who will be willing to tolerate the exposed environment, the limited tailgating, and the complete lack of a public transit option. And now, thanks to San Diego, we know it doesn't have to be that way.

There are a lot of reasons that Old Glory moved to Segra in the first place. Cardinal Stadium at Catholic University was not built to handle a professional team. Neither are any of the other university stadiums in the District. They have lines all over them, the surfaces are well below World Rugby recommendations, they don't allow alcohol, and they lack sufficient parking, amenities, and capacity.

When the pandemic struck and Old Glory lost access to Catholic, they needed to find a home that would let them grow carefully as they figured things out. Segra was really the only choice. However, it should be clear to everyone that it can't sustain the team forever.

Audi field

Fortunately, DC has a great replacement option: Audi Field. The 20,000-seat stadium lies right near the metro, in the heart of the city, and has all the modern amenities fans desire. It looks spectacular on TV and it has a high-quality grass pitch.

Moving there won't solve all of Old Glory's problems, though, because Audi Field's big downside is the cost. As a new and nice stadium, renting it isn't cheap. That means if Old Glory wants to play there regularly, they are going to have to bring in fans. Matching their current record of 2,800 won't be good enough. Even 5,000 fans is likely not enough.

That's why the second piece of the San Diego Strategy is absolutely essential. The team will need to promote the game in a way that they never have before. They need to do whatever it takes to get people out there. Billboards. Radio ads. TV ads. Metro ads. Roku ads. They need to get Old Glory's name everywhere.

To my knowledge, Old Glory has never done anything like this before. Aside from maintaining a social media presence and occasional booths at events like last summer's PR7s, they've largely stuck to a cheap and easy promotion scheme, keeping costs low and relying on word-of-mouth marketing. That was fine when the team was still figuring things out. After all, no point spending a ton to promote a product that isn't ready. The long-term path to success, though, is real promotion and real marketing. They will have to do more.

And the team is now in a state to do it. The on field product is great. The logistics are mostly worked out. There's experience in front office. There is history on the field. There is a core base of fans to build off of. The team is as well-positioned as it will ever be.

None of this is news to Old Glory's owners. They've been thinking about this for years, since the team first formed, weighing the options available to them and trying to pick the best ones for the team. But in my opinion, now is the time for the owners to commit. To go big. To make an effort to get to that next level.

San Diego has proven its possible, and it's possible now. I absolutely believe that Old Glory could get 10,000 fans to pack Audi Field. The only thing standing in the team's way is the fact that they haven't yet tried it.

The next five years

Of course, Old Glory is committed to Segra for at least the remainder of the year. They can't just jump straight to having every match at Audi this year.

That said, their contract with Segra gives them an option to host one match at Audi. This is the year that they need to leverage that option. If it goes well, then maybe next year is the year that Old Glory returns to the District for good. If it just goes okay, then maybe the timeline is longer. But either way, it needs to start now. OGDC will not break through without it.

The next five years will be pivotal for the team and the league. San Diego has proven it's possible to break through. Now it's Old Glory's turn to do the same. That means playing at Audi, even if it's just one match a year for now.