Athletic real estate to accommodate the growth of USA rugby has received a considerable shot in the arm, thanks to a versatile new pitch and event facility being transformed in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Rugby Athletic Center (RAC) was once a triple-decker golf driving range and pro shop. Over the last 14 months, the facility and property have been privately renovated into two and one-half regulation fields (2.5) made of natural Tifway 419 Bermuda grass.
The 3-tiered stadium structure will hold 1,800 fans, a proper pub, locker rooms, and a rooftop beer garden. Thousands more fans will be able to stroll around the property, watch sport from the sidelines, or roll out a picnic blanket and relax. For those passionate about growing rugby in America, this field of dreams story is worth a critical read.
“The sport of rugby has been growing in leaps and bounds, particularly here in Charlotte,” says P-J Anderson, President of the Board of NC’s High School Rugby Association. “The first thing you ask is: ‘What is needed’ and ‘what do people really want’ –– and then you provide that opportunity… and this is exactly what the new Rugby Athletic Center has done,” Anderson says.
Enter Bernie and Elizabeth Funck. Bernie is a retired Army Lt. Colonel who has coached youth and high school rugby for over ten years. Elizabeth is a former corporate attorney. Each of their three grown boys started playing rugby in the 6th grade. Over the years they sponsored youth rugby in Charlotte, went to all the games, loved all the people involved in rugby, yet saw the need for a more flexible, centrally located athletic space not governed by a university or public works schedule.
Bernie is also the owner of Ranger Construction in Charlotte, so when the golf property became available in foreclosure, serious discussions ensued naturally. Skillbeck Athletic Grounds is Charlotte’s longstanding RFC field and clubhouse, founded by Tony Skillbeck, a native Australian and longtime top USA Rugby officer. During initial development planning, the Funcks approached CRFC and their board members for feedback, concern for their pitch and clubhouse sustainability, and ultimately an alliance to bring more diverse rugby events into North Carolina.
Facility and field renovation plans were drawn up, numbers were crunched, and the mutual consensus was “the more [rugby turf], the merrier.” So the RAC investment group acquired the land in December of 2012 and sought guidance and green lights from local parks, recreation, and city officials. Ranger Construction even completed the structural, landscape, and drainage improvements required by the City of Charlotte themselves to move forward more quickly.
Once Carolina business news picked up the story, the City actually became interested in the Rugby Athletic Center as a draw for amateur sports tourism. Astoundingly, in 2013, 57% of Charlotte hotel room tabs were sports and athletics related, so the RAC will reach out to Lacrosse, Ultimate disc, Gaelic football, Hurling, and other sports organizers as a more intimate venue option.
The Rugby Athletic Center is about one-third the size of Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, South Carolina (5000 capacity), and most similar to Boxer Stadium in San Francisco, California (3500 capacity). These venues hosted USA Eagles test matches with considerable support from national rugby fans. On March 29th, our Eagle men take on Uruguay at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia (8300 capacity) to qualify for the World Cup 2015.
The RAC still stands to be quite competitive, offering two adjacent regulation pitches and a half-sized warm-up pitch. RAC leadership also sees this new property as a niche fit for 7s rugby, including qualifiers, tournaments, training camps, and high school or college round robin events.
"Having been involved with rugby in the Charlotte area for 15 years, I am excited for the entire Carolina rugby community. The development of the Rugby Athletic Center will provide unprecedented opportunities to introduce local youths to the game, and for serious rugby athletes to develop skills and compete for slots on US National Teams,” asserts Brendan Keane, Director of Carolinas Eagle Impact Rugby Academy.
Being able to photograph and televise rugby more brilliantly here in the US is a critical strategy for growing the sport and earning mainstream media exposure. This new centrally located rugby real estate appears to be a helpful venue for action photography and TV broadcasting, given the various angles now capable from around the property.
- Level one is open sections of covered bleachers at the field level, ideal for teams, family, and staff. Tents may be erected on match days to offer more coverage along sidelines.
- Level two (inside) is a proper pub and team-dining area with presentation and awards areas. Two kitchens will serve up artisan meals and event-specific fare, including healthy fruit and protein options and beverages. Two 70-inch plasma TVs will broadcast 6 Nations, World Cup, and other international matches on demand.
- Level two (outside) is the first of two curving decks overlooking the pitches, which are 270 feet long and 30 feet deep. The club seating design and sponsorship banners along the railings are a nice touch.
- Level three is an entirely open-air deck, also 270’ x 30’, and covered by a new arc rooftop. Level 3 also includes a beer garden overlooking the pitch and Charlotte's skyline, which is quite impressive.
"The professional environment and appearance the RAC will provide rugby in Charlotte and the South is phenomenal,” explains Dan Payne, Director of Rugby at Life University. “We look forward to playing some of our rugby matches at the facility, especially since the RAC is located in the very heart of our primary recruiting ground.”
There is still fresh paint, landscaping, and a property punch list to complete yet the feel and direction so far reminds me of watching polo, horse racing, or golf from elegant grandstands, suggesting champagne rugby spectatorship for sure.
- A walk-run track and secure fence will surround the fields, ideal for sitting, strolling, snacking, or seating 1000s more “folding chair” fans, pending final dimensions.
- A proper sound and PA system is being installed, along with a modern scoreboard. There will not be a sound-secure press box yet, however room for temporary broadcast booths and additional camera angle technologies are being considered pending feedback.
- A clever delivery entrance and parking area allows day-of vendors and trailers to conduct business near the main entrance and deck entrances.
- Locker rooms exit onto the fields for pre- and post-match team privacy and security. A separate referee’s lounge is already in place.
- In 2-3-4 years, the goal of accommodating 4,000 to 6,000 even 8,000 fans for Eagle test matches is a guiding vision. For now, this modern rugby start-up is focusing on elite youth, women’s, and high school rugby in need of a venue for 300 to 3000 fans.
“I am excited about the prospects of national and international matches being held in Charlotte on the two full-size rugby pitches at the facility,” says Brendan Keane, Director, Carolinas Eagle Impact Rugby Academy. “The RAC will help renew the community spirit of rugby in Charlotte as different youth, women's, and men's teams compete with one another on the field, come together to watch rugby, and share in the camaraderie of the game.”
Doug Shipley, a veteran of university and civic athletic facility management, is director of RAC development, operations, and a-la-carte event quotes. “My experience over the last 15 years at two different universities is that every athletic group is different in what they want and need for each event, and so that’s what we’re preparing for,” Shipley explains.
I found Doug to be quite knowledgeable and experienced in how successful sports facilities and game days are planned and managed. I sense the RAC will be a tightly run venue under his watch, offering helpful guidance to rugby organizers and managers seeking field accommodations.
The RAC's business model is simple: Any youth, amateur, or international sporting event unable to lease a public or university fields for a day, a week, or a weekend now has a private field option with state-of-the-art locker rooms, showers, and food and beverage service. Sport-specific gear will be available so teams can travel lightly for turnkey events.
Charlotte's international hub airport seems to offer affordable flights from anywhere. Direct driving routes to and from adjacent states help make Charlotte that ideal “meet-in-the-middle” location for eastern and mid-Atlantic states. Charlotte is also a vibrant city with a mild climate, especially during long winters when northern fields are frozen solid.
“The RAC will provide an opportunity for rugby athletes at all levels to play the game at a state of the art facility in a world-class southern city,” explains Justin Hickey, Head Coach of Clemson University in South Carolina. “We look forward to playing matches in Charlotte in front of hometown families and fans,” Hickey adds.
One historical challenge rugby has overcome in recent years is how obscure, outskirt, and hardly identifiable rugby field locations can be. My first memories were driving to training or tournament fields with my parents each week as they frustratingly tried to find the rugby fields.
Thankfully this nightmare is over. The RAC pitches are located along a major thoroughfare approximately 30 seconds from the Interstate 77 South Tryon Street and Clanton Road exits. I especially enjoy the large, well-lit, highly visible sign directly adjacent to the RAC entrance, and their website pulls up easily on any mobile phone.
A 25,000 square foot facility provides local annual lease revenues to support the overall investment and grounds maintenance costs. Two of the six retail spaces are now leased, with other prospective tenants waiting until the facility opens and weekly traffic is underway.
CrossFit South Tryon gym is the RAC’s first anchor tenant, effective Jan 1, 2014. As an obvious partner for training rugby players and teams, CrossFit is 7,300 square feet of high-ceiling workout space, with two roll up doors and access to the fields and parking lot. Gym staff has already connected with regional rugby clubs, high school, and youth teams, including Gaelic Football and others. CrossFit South Tryon also plans to hold fitness tournaments and events at the RAC for various ages.
About 1-2-3 miles in any direction are Charlotte's vibrant city center, SouthEnd and Dilworth neighborhoods, and the SouthPark area, each offering diverse hotels, restaurants, and nightlife. The new Scaleybark light-rail stop is several hundred yards away. RAC parking holds approximately 200 cars. Cell phone coverage is superb. A new microbrewery is building their facility a few blocks away, which is helpful.
The project did endure a slight setback. Following 78 straight days of rain last summer, installation of the pitches had to be delayed by three months. Thankfully the RAC is back on schedule, and southeastern rugby is bursting at the seams. In fact, 40 high school teams will converge in Charlotte March 8-9 for the 11th annual Ruggerfest.
Luckily the up-and-coming industrial part of the neighborhood likes the idea of rugby fields and athletic crowds coming to the area. The old property and adjacent retail structure had become overgrown, rundown, and a bit vagrant for over a decade. A few late evening matches under the lights each week would be a welcome change.
As is, the core structure and grounds are approximately 90% complete. By July of 2014 everything will be at or near 100% and ready for play. To view 180+ photos of field and facility construction progress, click here.
The final punch list contains amenity and landscape details, which may require another 6-12-15 months to complete. Additions include a high-tech scrum machine, on-site team laundry, ice baths, a 75-person banquet room, and more seating improvements around the property.
Ultimately, the duality of a 3-tier sky deck adjacent to a natural undulated landscape makes for one of the most exciting new rugby developments I’ve ever seen. "Projects like the RAC have a major impact on the development of rugby in the United States,” says Justin Hickey, Head Coach at Clemson University. "The Rugby Athletic Center is arguably the best new rugby facility in the southeast, and one of the elite new rugby venues nationwide."
To learn more about the RAC, or to obtain an event quote, visit the Rugby Athletic Center website.