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The origin of his story is run of the mill – played multiple sports growing up and found rugby in college. The rest, how his career in professional sport actually began with British basketball and morphed into authoring one of the great rags-to-riches tales in European rugby, is anything but.
In Mendon, Mich., like many small towns in America, football is king. The Hornets have enjoyed multiple undefeated seasons and claimed several state titles, including when a young Nathan Bombrys was playing on the offensive and defensive lines. Both of his parents were teachers and coaches, and in rural America, that often means coaching several sports – football, basketball, volleyball, cross country and track and field between the two of them.
When Bombrys enrolled at Syracuse, not long after the release of the movie “Rudy”, featuring Sean Astin as the famed walk-on of Notre Dame football lore, it was a heckle that prevented the Michigander from trying out for the Orangeman football team, bringing another sport to the Bombrys family’s already diverse athletic portfolio.
“Standing there to sign my name up, and some guy says, ‘Don’t do it, Rudy,’ and I looked around and the guy was wearing a SU rugby jacket. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You can sign up again tomorrow and try out tomorrow, come and try this rugby thing.’
“I was looking for a new experience,” recalled Bombrys. “I went to rugby practice, and I get to run the ball, I get to catch the ball and run with it. I was a decent basketball player too, and you get to use these different skills, and I just loved the fluidity of it.”
Four years later, Bombrys was done with his studies but not rugby. His best friend at Syracuse had lived all over the world and encouraged him to do the same. So Bombrys secured a six-month visa and headed for England.
“It was six months, and I was going to come back and be the openside for the Eagles. That was the plan,” said Bombrys. “Speed, skill, a few things let me down on that bit of the plan. I was a good club player. I was a good teammate – do my job, make other people look pretty good, because I was doing some of the hard work, but it was supposed to be a six-month thing.”
This is where the story flips from being typical of an American rugby player to looking a lot more like that of a foreign rugger visiting America. Enters the country on a short-term visa, and before he leaves, his accent opens the door to staying a bit more, and eventually a girl helps anchor him to his new home.
“The [London Towers] basketball team was owned by a concert promoter. He just liked me because I was an American and we got on. It was the winter, and he said, ‘Six months are up, what are you going to do? You want to go back to Michigan and shovel snow, or do you want to stay here?’ I thought, I was kind of having fun, I was playing rugby, so I’ll just stay here.”
For three years, the football state champ from Mendon who picked up rugby at Syracuse was helping run a professional basketball team in England.
“What I learned from the basketball job, it was quite interesting. I kind of relate it to, if I can do this, I can sell rugby to America. This isn’t the NBA, this is like 10-15 levels below the NBA. We got a guy from Syracuse, who never played, and he was too good for us. If you can sell that, you can sell anything. That was one of the key things I learned from that,” said Bombrys.
“I also learned how the British sports development system works. A lot of my job I was coordinating the coaching development for basketball and marketing the squad and doing a bunch of stuff. You have to kind of get hands on and learn.”
After leaving the Towers, a now defunct franchise, Bombrys spent some time freelancing, meeting his wife and getting married. Then he got his start in professional rugby, working on the commercial and marketing side for the Sale Sharks.
“It was a small outfit. Back in the U.K., they called it the back room, not the American term the front office. Like, the idea that you had professional people working off the field was a new idea in British sport at that time. And rugby had just gone professional, so when I jumped in rugby, it was still pretty much the amateur ethos. You’re working with people who were fans or used to be the volunteer that did this, and now they got a job doing it.
“I figured these sports need to learn how to make money. I figured out how to make money – maybe it was my American mindset – and I thought, alright, you’ll always have work. It was on the business side of rugby, but because I played rugby and studied rugby, I had a really good insight into the playing side, too.”
After spending seven years at Sale alongside the likes of Sebastian Chabal and Jason Robinson, Bombrys took a gig with the Scottish Rugby Union. The SRU turned professional in 1997, anointing a couple of clubs as its pro sides. A year earlier, England had created an entire professional league. So in terms of operating professionally, Scotland was significantly further behind its European counterparts, playing catch-up well into the 2000s.
Having worked as the commercial director and on the board for the Sharks, it made sense for Bombrys to take over one of Scotland’s two professional sides, which the SRU asked him to do after just a year at Murrayfield, and he became the managing director of the Glasgow Warriors.
“Scotland hadn’t figured out professional rugby at that time, whereas I had a lot of experience from my time in England,” said Bombrys.
One of the main differences between working with Sale, a Premiership team, and Glasgow, a Scottish side, is the makeup of ownership. Sale was owned by a wealthy individual, like many of the English sides are. The owner-union relationship can occasionally be adversarial, like the owner-commissioner setup of the NFL. But in Scotland, the owner is the union.
“When I came up to Scotland, we’re owned by the Scottish Rugby Union,” said Bombrys. “So we work for the governing body, and yet you had the governing body doing what the governing body is doing, but they needed the entrepreneurship and to kind of loosen up a bit. It’s kind of an interesting balance. It was a unique experience to work for a wealthy private individual and all the volatility that comes with that to then working for a really prudent governing body and trying to blend both.”
In American pro sports, you have the owner, and below him or her the general manager operating over the on-the-field side, and usually a president or some other executive looking after the off-the-field side. In Glasgow, Bombrys does it all, negotiating player contracts and delivering and meeting the budget. He’s also lauded for overseeing the Warriors’ move from their old stadium Firhill, to Scotstoun.
Prior to his arrival in 2011, the Warriors finished 11th in their league. They’d made the playoffs just three times in the previous 10 seasons. They had the lowest self-generated revenue in European rugby, usually playing in front of about 1,500 people a game, only 700 of which were season ticket holders.
In the seven seasons since Bombrys took over, they’ve missed the playoffs just once. In 2015/2016 they became the first Scottish team in the professional era to hoist a major trophy, winning the Pro 12. And last season they reached the European quarterfinals for the first time ever. This year, they currently sit at 10-0 in the now expanded Pro 14.
“We moved to a new stadium, and now we’re sold out. We’ve been sold out for the last two years. We actually have money coming in, so we’ve been able to keep hold of some of our top players and increase the amount we’re able to spend on our squad and keep a pretty strong squad together,” Bombrys said.
Since Glasgow is owned by the SRU, one of its major functions is to provide players for the Scottish National Team. In November, Scotland enjoyed a particularly successful homestand, scoring 53 points in a win over Australia and 44 in a victory against Samoa. Their lone loss was an unlucky 22-17 defeat at the hands of the mighty All Blacks. A whopping 17 Warriors were in the match-day 23 against New Zealand.
These accomplishments were nearly unfathomable before Bombrys came along. In his first presentation to the club after being named the managing director, in which he laid out a five-point plan, he was literally laughed at for suggesting otherwise.
“I was trying to encourage a culture where people can actually dare to dream a little bit,” recalled Bombrys. “You have to know a little bit of something about the Scottish psyche to appreciate why that was an important thing to say. They’re quite a conservative and cynical bunch, and I said that, and I said I believe we’re a club that’s going to win the Pro 12 and win the Heineken Cup, and one of my dreams is to be the MD that can take this organization to do that. And there was literally laughter in the room.
“The next year I did a similar presentation, the updated version. We’d just been to the playoffs that year in the Guinness Pro 12 and hired Gregor Townsend. I’m giving my presentation on the way to introducing Gregor to all the staff, and I said the same thing, and there was no laughter in the room. People started to kind of believe in it a little bit. That was really a lot of fun.”
Under Bombrys, the Warriors slayed one of those dragons in winning the Pro 12. Next up is winning Europe, a remarkably tall task. It won’t happen this season, as the Warriors are 0-4 in their Champions Cup pool.
“In Scotland, we’re a small rugby country, and we played a team in Montpellier that had five, six times the budget of us. That’s the reality. We’re way under-gunned financially, and we should have beat them. We should have beat them home and away. So our fans understand, for us, it’s going to have to be an exceptional year for us to compete on two fronts,” said Bombrys.
The fans also understand that having nearly 20 players called up to the international side in the middle of the season is a challenge, too. Scotland shelled the Wallabies in Edinburgh Nov. 25. Ruaridh Jackson came on in the last 10 minutes. The next morning he jumped on a plane to meet the Warriors in Swansea, starting the match and contributing 60 minutes to a landslide victory.
“That’s incredible,” lauded Bombrys. “Our fans get it. They understand we’re not fighting on two fronts, we’re fighting on three.”
While he’s now lived in the U.K. for more than 20 years, Bombrys has never forgotten where he comes from. That’s evidenced by his signings, as he’s inked Eagles Greg Peterson, Folau Niua, Carlin Isles and Langilangi Haupeakui to contracts with Glasgow. Only Peterson has managed to earn an extension.
“We have to have a different approach. We sometimes have to take a little bit of risk in recruiting, rugby risk rather than financial risk,” said Bombrys.
“We don’t necessarily have the budgets of Montpellier or Racing 92 to just go and hire the best players out of Super Rugby from New Zealand – oh, I had an injury, I’ll hire an All Black. I don’t have that luxury. We’re having to turn over stones and look for hidden gems and good players, and to be frank, Americans, when you have an injury midseason, a Folau or Carlin, they’re available.
“I think I’ve signed more North American rugby players than anybody in Europe in my time here, so we’re obviously looking at players in that area. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
He also goes out of his way to be a gracious host to American touring sides, recently hosting Penn State and St. Mary’s, arranging a match between the Gaels and Glasgow’s academy side. Despite the Warriors being sold out, he found some seats for the Californians to take in a professional match afterwards. Edina High School (MN) is currently planning a trip to Scotland, too.
“When Americans get in touch with me, I try to use and abuse my contacts, my network and my position to try and help them out,” said Bombrys. “Like me, I came to the U.K. and moved across the world because I wanted to get better and prove myself in rugby, so when I come across people who want to do the same, I try and help them.”
Seven years into being the managing director of the Warriors, Bombrys is still enjoying his rugby. But he admits he thinks about what it would be like to move back to America and boost the game Stateside.
“I’ve got some time in front of me. I love what I do with Glasgow, really love it. It’s a great city. The people are so enthusiastic about their rugby now. It’s a football city, but it’s not anymore. It’s become a rugby city as well, and we’ve got to build a bigger stadium, so that’s a pretty big project,” said Bombrys.
“There’s a lot to do. But, the U.S., there’s also part of me that’s always said in the back of my mind that maybe one day I’d be able to go back home and use some of my knowledge and experience and apply it there. You never know if there was an opportunity where I could contribute, but it hasn’t come up yet.”