In My Own Words: Rugby legend Phaidra Knight on Sin City and the new state of the women’s sport

Phaidra Knight has played professional rugby for 18 years and is considered to be the most successful women’s rugby player in U.S. history. In 2010, Knight was named USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade. Today, Knight, 42, continues to play rugby while coaching the sport and serving as a game commentator.

Las Vegas, often called “Sin City,” became “Sin Bin City” in early March when more than 80,000 rugby players and fans descended on the U.S. stop for the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series—a circuit of 10 international tournaments where the best national teams around the world meet to compete. While this year’s Las Vegas event broke records in attendance, showing that rugby is on the rise, it was also one for the history books in a different way: It was the first time the U.S. series stop combined the men’s and women’s tournaments, with 12 women’s national teams present.

In the U.S. series stops in past years, the women have played their own tournament at the Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga. When I was a spectator there in 2015 and 2016, the number of fans in the crowd was not convincing. USA Rugby (USAR), the sport’s national governing body, operated the event at a loss both years and couldn’t afford to take another hit in 2017—why the organization agreed to combine the tournament with the men’s U.S. stop in Las Vegas.

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Rugby is undeniably spectacular to watch, particularly sevens, which pits teams of seven against each other for seven-minute halves rather 15-person teams for 40-minute halves. But rugby, whether sevens or 15s, is not a popular spectator sport in the States, particularly the women’s game, which suffers from lack of public interest and, consequently, low game attendance.

I’ve always believed that, in order for the women’s game to fill stadiums and thrive commercially, we must be an objective, factored into the infrastructure and strategic plan of the sport’s governing body and marketed uniquely and more frequently from the men’s game. I couldn’t agree more with USAR CEO Dan Payne’s assessment that, for women’s rugby to build a larger following, it needs to be displayed in front of larger crowds.

And Payne wasn’t just paying lip service when he made those comments: He backed it up by collaborating with United World Sports (UWS), the rightsholders for the men’s U.S. series stop in Las Vegas, to combine the two events. This was, perhaps, one of the boldest and greatest efforts made to date on U.S. soil to get women’s rugby in front of more people.

Phaidra Knight (photo courtesy of Phaidra Knight.)

I went to the Las Vegas tournament, both to watch and commentate for World Rugby. During the three-day event, the women played Friday and Saturday afternoons while the men played Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday. While the men’s games still drew larger crowds, many fans were able to watch the women’s game for the first time and fell in love with the action and tenacity of the sport—it was incredible to see thousands of men’s rugby fans wowed by the women’s game.

While there are still kinks to work out with the combined tournament, including negotiating the same television coverage for women that the men receive, the event was a great start and possibly a game changer for women. No doubt, if Las Vegas can better integrate the women’s and men’s matches, the combined tournament will help the women’s game grow in fans, exposure and commercial opportunities.

During this year’s tournament, four other commentators joined me in the broadcast, including two former legendary international players: Melodie Robinson of New Zealand and England’s Maggie Alphonsie. It was pretty amazing to share the booth with these women whom I’ve played against a few times.    

As far as what was happening on field, I was amazed by the high level of pure physicality and skills the women sustained in their back-to-back days of competition. Top players like U.S.’s Naya Tapper, New Zealand’s Portia Woodman, Canada’s Brittney Ben, Fiji’s Tima Ravisa and Australia’s Emma Tonegato all made big evasive runs, which brought the crowd to its feet.

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After a remarkable second-place finish at the World Sevens Series in Sydney, the U.S. women’s national team didn’t fail to impress in Las Vegas, finishing just off the podium in fourth. Despite their quarterfinal loss to New Zealand, who went on to win the entire tournament, the U.S. women showed new glimmers of confidence and resilience over the weekend. Their improvement and growth on the World Rugby Sevens circuit overall this season suggests they might be able to finish in the  top five this year, improving over their sixth place finish last year. .

Similar to years past, the U.S. tournament also included the Las Vegas Invitational (LVI), where high school, collegiate, open sides and elite teams from around the world get the chance to play each other.  But compared to just three years ago, there were many more divisional teams and the competition was much better among these juniors teams.

This  year’s U.S. tournament in Las Vegas tournament is the best proof we have to date that women’s rugby is on the rise globally. But as with any successful venture, strategy and execution are paramount. There is an enormous pool of gifted athletic talent in the U.S.—in fact, we’re often called the “waking sleeping giant of rugby.” Opportunities for women and girls to play—and to play in front of larger crowds with increased media exposure—will ultimately wake the giant and potentially change the landscape of women’s sports.

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