This article can also be found in the April 2018 issue of Mercer Island Living Magazine.
The Seawolves are making history as Seattle’s very first professional rugby team. Traditionally, rugby hasn’t been of utmost popularity in the United States, but Seawolves’ lock and Mercer Island resident Jeremy Lenaerts is confident that the sport is bound to be a favorite in no time.
Lenaerts, who is Belgian, spent seven years playing rugby in France before moving to the States to play rugby at Central Washington University.
“In France, rugby is really embedded into their culture,” said Lenaerts. “But the US has a huge passion for sports overall. Without a doubt the States will grow to become an even more dominant force in the international rugby scene.”
On April 22, the Seawolves will face the San Diego Legion for their inaugural game and home field opener at Starfire Sports. Between the Seawolves’ star-studded lineup, which includes a number of the Canadian international players, USA international players, Olympians and more, and accomplished coaching team led by head coach Tony Healy and Rugby Development Director Curry Hitchborn, it’s sure to be an impressive match.
The club came to fruition after Adrian Balfour – a rugby fanatic from Ireland – approached Shane Skinner in 2017 about co-founding the league. “[Balfour] had an option on a new league,” Skinner said. “He told me that he didn’t know how it would pan out, but that worst case it would be an experience, and best case we could do something really special.”
The co-founders originally met while Skinner was fundraising for his tech company, Record360 – Balfour was assigned to Skinner’s board and became his sponsor. As a board member to Record360, Balfour got a look into how Skinner runs a business. “He’s seen me execute, and hire quality, good people,” Skinner said. “He knows I am gritty and resourceful, all the things it takes to have a successful startup.” Over the years of working together, the two also built a friendship. “We both play rugby, so we bonded over that, and we play on the same team now. Adrian absolutely loves rugby, he will travel all over the world to watch it.”
For Skinner, who is as passionate about the sport as he is making it visible in Seattle, partnering with Balfour was an easy decision. “Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in America,” he said. “I love the game, it’s done a lot for me in my life and it feels good to give other people that opportunity to experience it.”
Fast-forward one year later and the team has made headway that takes other leagues years to accomplish. For starters, New Zealand-based Canterbury Rugby Union and the Crusaders Super Rugby team recently purchased minority ownership in the franchise. In terms of its significance, Skinner said, “This would be equivalent to [England-based] Manchester United [F.C.] taking an ownership stake in the Sounders before they even played a game.” And in addition to locally broadcasted games, Skinner and Balfour landed the team a weekly slot on the nationally televised CBS Sports, which reaches 63 million households. “We already have immense reach and we haven’t even stepped on the field. It’s amazing.”
The league is currently made up of seven teams: Seattle, San Diego, Utah, Houston, Austin, New Orleans and Denver; the Seawolves are slated to play four home games and four away games this season. “It’s going to be really competitive from the start,” Skinner said. “Every team has phenomenal players.” Looking forward, the league intends to add three more teams in 2019; New York is already entered. “Our league’s commissioner, Dean Howes, is the former Real Salt Lake CEO. He has a lot of experience getting across the goal line and creating successful leagues. We are very optimistic.”
For rugby enthusiasts alike, the Seawolves is an overdue venture, not only in Seattle, but the US at large. “Rugby isn’t just a sport, it’s a community,” Skinner said.
Lenaerts echoed a similar sentiment – “It’s about giving it your all on the field with your teammates,” he said. “and about creating special memories that will last a lifetime.”
The Seawolves are on pace to sell out of season tickets and single game tickets before they even play their first match. To snag tickets before it’s too late visit SeattleSeawolves.com