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USA Rugby is in a tight spot financially at the moment. The national office has never been mistaken for Scrooge McDuck’s money pit in the past, but the national governing body is especially lean this year. CEO Dan Payne has talked openly about it, saying they’re starting 2017 about a million dollars in the red.
The stated reasons are the bankruptcy of kit sponsor BLK and the plummeting European currency exchange rates – USA Rugby relies heavily on grants from World Rugby, as well as English investments in for-profit arm Rugby International Marketing, and this year that translates to fewer American dollars in the bank account.
The lack of expected income has forced USA Rugby to cutback in many ways. The senior national teams, three of which are in action in coming weeks, aren’t immune, and the cash shortfall could affect on-the-field results.
The men’s 7s side is the next to take the pitch Jan. 28 in Wellington, New Zealand, and the most obvious hit to the program is that it can only afford to take 12 players, even though World Rugby now allows for teams to bring a 13th player in case of injury.
“We haven’t got the money to fly the 13th player, because you have to pay for the 13th player flight,” head coach Mike Friday told Rugby Today. “All your ground costs are met, but that’s kind of how tight we’re having to be at the moment.”
Friday’s also had to cut back on the amount of people he can pull into his high performance camps, which act as a selection vehicle for upcoming tournaments. There’s no money for Phil Greening, who’s come in as an assistant coach in the past, to travel with the team. That particular point’s moot for the upcoming leg of the Series, as Greening will be coaching with the 15s team in the Americas Rugby Championship, but Greening was a key part of the cog leading into the Olympics, and his presence is missed.
Additionally, the team is traveling later than usual. Most of the serious competitors arrive to the tournament site early, before the host’s hospitality kicks in. So when it comes to recovery, becoming accustomed to time zone changes and general on-site preparation, the Eagles are now starting behind their foes.
This early in the Olympic cycle, expanding the player pool and developing new talent is paramount, and USA Rugby’s financial state has forced the program to cut back on those efforts, too.
The developmental team, the Falcons, just got back from a two-tournament trip to South America. But Friday says he can’t afford to send them to Howard Hinton 7s in Paris, or even the Las Vegas Invitational, both tournaments they’d used for development in the past. That last bit bears repeating – stationed at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., just about a five-hour-drive from Las Vegas, the 7s national team can’t afford to send its developmental side to the LVI.
Notice the EATC is the new name of what was formerly the Olympic Training Center. The United States Olympic Committee no longer owns the grounds in Chula Vista, having sold it to the city for a nominal amount. Now the USOC essentially rents the facilities. That change has presented some financial challenges, too, even if smaller ones. For example, teams used to be shuttled to the airport for free, and now they have to pay for it.
Mix in the fact that the players are all being paid markedly less than they were eight months ago, in the run-up to Rio, and it’s easy to see how morale could be dipping as low as the program’s coffers. Friday insists, though, that the players are as committed as ever.
“These boys are emptying. They’re not complaining. We’ve made that conscious decision this year – we’re not interested in mindless complaining. If you’ve got a complaint, you have to come up with a solution,” Friday said.
Friday is getting creative to provide solutions himself. He tapped his connection with kit provider Samurai, which fields one of the world’s best invitational 7s teams, to get them to sponsor what was essentially a Falcon side in New York 7s. He’s hoping to place some guys with teams in Hong Kong and the LVI.
“We’re all madly passionate about not losing momentum on what we’ve achieved so far, and we’re not going to let these types of things be excuses. Some of it might end up being out of our control, but the reality is we will give everything we can to ensure that we maintain and move forward, but it’s a tall order. It’s a tough task,” he added.
“If we stand still we’re going to go backwards, and unfortunately, right now we’re under immense financial pressure. We need to find some sort of corporate investment or investment to allow us to grow and springboard on from what we’ve achieved in the last two or three years, because otherwise it will be ‘Groundhog Day’, and we’ll be playing catch up again for 2020. So that’s my challenge.”