Austin Elite Rugby hoping pyrotechnics, drama will draw larger crowds in year two
ROUND ROCK — About 10 minutes before the start of the Austin Elite Rugby season opener Saturday, the lights went dim at Dell Diamond. Blue smoke filled the air as a hype video played on the stadium’s scoreboard.
The second-year Major League Rugby franchise is doing its best to create a major league environment, even if the crowds are still lacking. Announced attendance for the match, which featured a dramatic late winning kick by the Houston SaberCats for a 21-20 victory, was 1,604.
A steady rain fell throughout the evening, and temperatures were in the low 50s.
“It’s disappointing, but when you see what the weather was, it’s actually pretty good,” Elite CEO Thierry Daupin said.
The Elite are starting from a higher floor than they did in 2018, when about 700 fans showed up for the first home match at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex. The number of season-ticket holders has jumped from approximately 50 to 400. By the end of the season, Daupin said, the franchise hopes to draw between 3,500 and 5,000 fans.
Those who did show up Saturday were treated to an intense match, with the lead changing hands four times in the second half. The Elite scored the only two tries of the match, the last coming with about 20 minutes left after an extended period of play near the goal line.
“We had possession for probably 12 or 15 phases there, and eventually we got over for the score,” Austin captain Ben Mitchell said. “When we got that, I was thinking, ‘We’re definitely going to win the game now.’ That’s rugby for you.”
The ensuing conversion gave the Elite a 17-15 advantage. The teams traded kicks until the end, with Sam Windsor booting the 3-point winner in stoppage time. Windsor scored all of the SaberCats’ points, going 7-for-7 on the night.
Though deflated by the result, fans were impressed by the show.
“I think they’re on the right track for the spectacle they’re trying to get,” said James Cobble, who played at Arkansas State before joining the Austin Blacks. “Unfortunately, the weather tonight, I think, played a big factor in the turnout.”
People like Cobble make up the core of MLR fans. A Facebook group called Austin Elite Rugby Supporters sprouted up to organize a pregame tailgate and by Sunday had 27 members. But the club is determined to draw in casual fans who might have no prior exposure to the sport.
Daupin and others from the front office spent time on the concourse explaining rules and answering questions for the curious.
“If they know what’s happening, they’re more likely to come back,” he said. “They start to get into it.”
Like the pre-match pyrotechnics, close scores are built into the MLR design. The league is a single entity like Major League Soccer, with owners working together for the betterment of the whole. Part of that is creating parity. The other match Saturday, between NOLA Gold and the expansion Toronto Arrows, also came down to the wire, with the New Orleans side winning 36-31.
“People live for that. You could hear tonight, people pulling for both sides and whistling,” Daupin said.
The Elite have four home matches in February, beginning Friday with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Utah Warriors. Dell Diamond will host a pair of home matches the weekend of Feb. 22, with the Elite playing the San Diego Legion on Feb. 22 and the U.S. men’s national team facing Brazil on Feb. 23.
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