When PRO Rugby announced a team in Obetz, Ohio it came as a surprise to some. But those that know the community weren’t surprised that there was so much interest in the suburb of Columbus.
“Obetz looks forward to adding another professional sports franchise to our hometown,” Obetz Village Administrator Rod Davisson remarked. “Our expectations are that the community will embrace the team and that everyone involved will enjoy the experience.”
Yes, the village of about 5,000 people is already home to the training ground of Columbus Crew SC. The EAS Training Center at Obetz, originally opened in 1997, was the first of its kind in Major League Soccer. So there certainly is a precedent.
The Greater Columbus area is a great sports market so adding rugby seemed like a logical step.
“Obetz had hosted other rugby tournaments, which presumably put us on the rugby radar,” Davisson added. “As the home of the first purpose-built MLS practice facility, we have been in the growth of that professional sport since its inception. When we were approached by PRO Rugby, it was a natural fit to have a team here in Obetz.”
And so the rugby adventure begins and it is one that has great promise and potential, according to Rugby Ohio Marketing Director Matt DeBarr.
“I know a lot of people were surprised by Ohio getting a team, but when you look at the Ohio numbers it makes sense. We have the fifth largest SBRO (State Based Rugby Organization) in the country. We have 70 high school teams and 40+ middle school teams. There are 17 men’s and women’s clubs in the state and 44 college clubs. And for the last five years we’ve been at a 23% growth rate.”
That growth has been taking place all over the Buckeye State and DeBarr has high hopes for the entire Central Ohio region.
“Columbus numbers have dipped a bit the past few years, but this year we are up 30% growth in high school numbers and we just started our Rookie Rugby program this year in which we’ll have 80+ kids playing in grade school and middle school. This new team and what Nate Ebner is doing with the USA Sevens team right now is going to change the game for us in Central Ohio and I expect our numbers explode of the next three years.”
Ebner, a Dublin, Ohio native and former Ohio State University standout, is making his case for the 2016 Olympic rugby team that will be playing in this summer’s games in Rio. His day job is a rather important one, playing as a defensive back for the NFL’s New England Patriots.
Even though the league has a grand total of just five teams, it is garnering discussion from the highest level of the sport.
“The league will increase visibility for the game and gives young players an opportunity to become professionals if they work hard,” USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville added. “It works well as it completes the pathway and fills the gap between club and college and the national team. It also provides us with 100+ players in full-time training and competition. That has to be a positive for us.”
A professional game board with USA Rugby and PRO Rugby representatives has even been established. That’s clearly a big step, one in the right direction.
“We will be able to monitor players and our head coach John Mitchell will be working with the pro team coaches,” Melville added.
It sounds like a great start and a big opportunity for rugby here in the Midwest. A great crowd is anticipated for the first home match in Obetz, which will take place on May 1st.