Chicago Hounds looking to build a sustainable franchise

The Hounds, a first-year team in Major League Rugby, begin play Saturday and are hoping to be in a position to capitalize on the 2031 Rugby World Cup coming to the United States.

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The Hounds will play 16 games, beginning Saturday.

Courtesy of the Hounds

Starting a new team in Chicago means entering one of the country’s biggest, best and most passionate sports markets. Yet at the same time, that also means competing with established franchises that contributed to Chicago’s sports reputation.

James English, general manager and CEO of the Chicago Hounds, understands that challenge.

The Hounds, an expansion team in Major League Rugby opening play Saturday at Old Glory DC, will be looking to offer different kinds of fan experiences than other franchises in the area. English said players will be more accessible to supporters and understand their role as builders of a sport and franchise.

But the Hounds know that breaking through into the Chicago bloodstream will not be effortless, even if there is a strong rugby community in the midwest.

“We’re very aware that it’s a tough job,” English said. “We’re not naive enough to think that rugby as a concept on its own will sell itself. We have to get the fan experience right. We have to do something that people can connect with and be proud of. That’s not easy.”

The Hounds will play 16 games, hosting home matches at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview with their home opener coming March 5. And besides in-person attendance, one way the team could draw new fans is through broadcasting.

The Hounds will appear twice on Fox Sports 1 and once on Fox Sports 2. They’ve also struck a local deal to get 13 of their 16 games onto Marquee Sports Network or the channel’s streaming-only option.

That Marquee partnership gets the Hounds consistently into area homes, giving them a fighting chance of making fans from people who stumble across the sport. It also connects the Hounds with the Cubs and provides opportunities to promote themselves on the broadcasts of Chicago’s oldest sports team.

“Our aim is to get as many eyeballs on what we’re doing as possible, and television and [over the top] platforms are so important for us,” English said. “You look at something like Marquee and you know that if I go into a bar anywhere in Chicago that they already have Marquee. And when you’re going and speaking to bars and you’re asking if we can play games and what that looks like for viewing parties, Marquee is very accessible and something they’re all very comfortable with and familiar with.

“It gives that brand recognition to what we’re doing straightaway, which I think is important.”

English doesn’t expect the Hounds to fill SeatGeek Stadium overnight and is hopeful for around 4,000 or 5,000 fans. To start, only one side of the arena will be open to fans to create a more festive atmosphere and better optics for TV, and English is working to prove professional rugby can be a sustainable business.

Clearly, a goal is to make sure the Hounds are in a position to benefit from the 2031 Rugby World Cup in the United States.

“We have a real opportunity to embed rugby in a city like Chicago so that when the World Cup arrives, we can really use that as a springboard for the game nationally,” English said. “But we’ve got to get this right first.”

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