Wait, New York Has a Pro Rugby Team? Yes, and It’s a Winner So Far

James Kennedy wants you to know something about Rugby United New York right away. “We’re not the Knicks,” he said.

Though New York City’s new professional rugby union team is an expansion team, he said, it will not wind up at the bottom of the standings like its basketball brother. Kennedy, the team’s owner and chairman, did not hedge when he spoke about the team’s chances in Major League Rugby. “We are certainly playoff bound,” he promised.

And why not? The team is 4-1, having played only road games so far in a 16-game season, and is ready for its home opener, against the Toronto Arrows, on Friday night at MCU Park in Coney Island.

New sports leagues — Major League Rugby is in its second year — have a habit of failing, and a professional rugby outfit would seem to be particularly perilous in a country where even many die-hard sports fans don’t know a scrum from a line-out.

But Kennedy expects a good crowd on Friday and beyond. “I’d say we’ll average 4,500,” he said, adding that their first game in the 7,000-seat stadium was “close to a sellout.” The team could be helped by popular pricing: $20 to $35 a ticket.

With confidence, Kennedy added, “We’re looking for a bigger stadium for a playoff game.” The top four finishers in the nine-team league make the playoffs.

The television box is checked. Fans not eager to jump on the D or F train can see many of the games on CBS Sports Network, SNY or ESPN+.

While rugby newcomers will hardly be turned away, Kennedy believes that a good chunk of the fans who turn up will be fairly savvy to the game. “In the tristate area, there are 283 rugby clubs,” he said. “There are 35,000 players who started in college or high school.” He expects the expatriate community to turn up, too.

He described the league’s business model as “a direct copy” of Major League Soccer’s. Kennedy owns his team and also a piece of the league. “If a team or two fails, there’s money to keep it on its feet and then move it after the season,” he said.

Petri, 34, retired in 2015, but the lure of a professional league in the United States brought him back. “The quality of play across the board is outstanding,” he said, citing fullback Ben Foden, who has played for top club teams and the England national team.

“Compared to the New York A.C.,” a semipro club Petri has played for, “you get a high level of skill and a high rugby I.Q. It’s a faster game.”

Like Kennedy, Petri is bullish on the league’s future. “It’s an organic growth,” he said. “We’re going to start with the existing fan base. The rugby community is so tight-knit. The thrill of being part of that group is tangible. And most people who watch their first rugby game are intrigued and get hooked.”

And Kennedy has even bigger plans, arising in part from his background in construction. While acknowledging that options in the city are limited (just ask the New York City F.C. of M.L.S.), he said that in the longer term, “I would love to build a stadium a few years from now.”

For now, though, it will be all about defeating the likes of the Houston SaberCats and the Glendale Raptors and lifting the Major League Rugby trophy.


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