You are here
A former policeman who broke in as a rugby executive with the Premiership’s Harlequins and later put on three World Cups with World Rugby, Ross Young’s first foray into the American game came as a surprise addendum to a speaking engagement. Four years later, another surprise opportunity landed him the interim role of CEO for USA Rugby.
The door swung open for Young while the national governing body was at a crossroads. Rather, because it’s at a crossroads.
The board and leadership which saw the union split its commercial assets, raise money against them, burn through $7.5 million in investment and leave the national governing body in dire financial and organizational straits is gone, chasing away former good-guy CEO Dan Payne on its way out. The same leadership also approved the sanction of Doug Schoninger’s PRO Rugby, which went down in flames and has filed suit with USA Rugby at a time when the national governing body will have to likely turn its pockets inside out and take up a collection to pay any legal bills.
The vacuum left in the aftermath of nearly a decade spent under the leadership of a smooth-talking, well-connected English chief executive, Nigel Melville, is currently being filled, starting with Young, a smooth-talking, well-connected Scotsman. And it’s happening at a time when the race to tap the American sporting market in the name of rugby is heating up, with foreign governing bodies, clubs and leagues having a head start.
Young has earned a gold-plated reputation during his five years in American rugby. He says the right things, turns doomsayers into optimists, and leaves nothing for even the most observant trolls to feed on. Everyone likes and respects him. His resume is near flawless – Webb Ellis Cups to grassroots. But he’s also deeply connected to USA Rugby’s new creditor and, at a time when he admits a growing part of the union’s job is to protect the American market from foreign predators, a foreigner himself.
He served as the general manager for three of World Rugby’s quadrennial, month-long festivals through the 2003, 2007 and 2011 World Cups in Australia, France and New Zealand, respectively. He was working on 2015 in England before the tournament’s leadership was largely replaced by that which ran the 2012 London Olympics. Young then set off on a new path as a consultant, shipping him Stateside.
Young came over in 2013 for the Global Rugby Forum, an event held in conjunction with the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia. Ben Gollings, then of Serevi, the Seattle-based startup, was an academy payer at Harlequins when Young was with the London club. He and now-Atavus owner Chris Prentice asked Young to switch coasts for a week after the forum to dig through their operation. Among other things, Young suggested they hire a CEO. Prentice wanted Young, transferring an already big fish to a much smaller pond.
“It’s exciting to do something new and fresh, get in on the basement level if you like,” Young told Rugby Today.
“Even spending that week in Seattle, for me, it was an opportunity and it was something different and more grassroots and rugby development based, which I’d never had the opportunity to do, so for me it really was the case of getting across here and trying to help in some way or form to continue to establish and help build rugby in the U.S.”
Young led the company through its rebranding, into a partnership with USA Rugby to collaborate on player and coach development and an expansion into football. Atavus is penetrating the football market even further, while continuing in rugby mostly in the way of camps. With the football side of the business growing as the rugby operation was pared down, a confluence of personal issues for a pair of USA Rugby executives opened a new door.
CEO Dan Payne ran into some health issues, and Rosie Spaulding, the general manager of next month’s 7s World Cup in San Francisco, had to step away for a short stint to give birth to her child. Coinciding with the union’s deepening financial crisis thanks to the failure of Rugby International Marketing and an impending lawsuit with PRO Rugby’s Doug Schoninger, these happenstances left USA Rugby in need of high-level help, and Young was uniquely qualified.
“From Dan Payne’s perspective towards the end of last year, he wanted me to come in and look after some special projects, such as the MLR sanctioning, the rebidding for the next four-year cycle of the World Sevens Series, and even help him begin to look at the organizational and operational review of USA Rugby,” said Young. “As everyone is aware, he decided he was also going to move on in that period as well, so it’s more just the way the circumstances have panned out that have put us there.”
He started with USA Rugby, like with Atavus, in a consulting capacity. He then transitioned to director of operations, filling in where needed. Payne, who would take up a job with Young’s former cohorts at World Rugby, announced his resignation from USA Rugby in April, and Young was heralded as the interim chief executive a month later.
Young’s made it clear he wants the role full-time, but it’s not a guarantee. USA Rugby’s board needs to be made whole before that decision can come to pass, but as part of the deal to pitch in during the union’s time of need, Young is definitely going to be around for a while. If he’s not made the permanent CEO, he will serve as the COO.
“It’s not just like holding onto the reigns for a month and then passing them onto someone else. This interim role is requiring a lot of time, and to commit to that without thinking about the long-term implications to me just didn’t seem right. It made a lot of sense to have the dual aspect.”
The new USA Rugby is beginning to take shape. Mark Griffin, an Englishman, was recently announced as USA Rugby’s new commercial director. Mark Lambourne, also from England, was tabbed the chief restructuring officer, a role usually reserved for someone charged with putting Humpty Dumpty back together after a bankruptcy, and he’s expected to take on a larger role at some point, potentially on the board. Paul Santinelli, an American, was recently named to the board as a transitional member – he may not be around once the five empty seats are filled come September.
At the behest of many, including World Rugby, which has stepped in to relieve RIM from its responsibility as guarantor for July’s World Cup, USA Rugby 2.0 won’t be finalized until a full review has been made by outside consulting firm SRi, which is tasked with reviewing the union’s organizational structure and recommending changes.
The initial review is complete, and now the firm is focused on creating a go-forward plan for USA Rugby. So while titles and roles are being assigned and filled, they may not match the recommendations from SRi and could be amended or changed once the full process is done.
“To me it’s all about having the right team in place with the right individuals and the right responsibilities,” said Young. “Certainly, what has happened and what is going to happen is going to give us an opportunity to review that and put those right structures in place, so that there is a right executive management team to cover all aspects of operations and general interest and the commercial aspects of the organization.”
While deliberately planning for the future is paramount – everyone wants to know what the way forward looks like – there is still work to be done to sort through exactly what the ramifications from the RIM fallout are. Lambourne, along with former CMO Pam Kosanke and Jon Bobbett, are leading the way in that regard.
Two major parts of the workout plan are the sale of The Rugby Channel to Flo Sports and the added financial assistance from World Rugby, which has been popularly referred to as a bailout. What Flo gets in return in its deal is clear – pretty much everything The Rugby Channel had.
What World Rugby gets in return has been a little less obvious, though Rugby Today has learned World Rugby will get a seat on USA Rugby’s new board for its part. Young would not confirm or deny World Rugby’s seat on USA Rugby’s board, though multiple sources have.
In May, Young did go on record with Rugby Today in response to then-rumor of the bailout and what conditions it might come packaged with, but he spoke in generalities.
“I can’t go into the details with the rearrangement with World Rugby. To call it a bailout is a bit harsh. Obviously, there are a number of concerns for everyone that have to be protected. Obviously, Rugby World Cup 2018, which still has huge potential of providing a massive upside springboard for what we’re all trying to do, and that has to be protected.
“The conditionality, the attachment, yes there’s going to be a long-term partnership with World Rugby that comes out of the arrangement…
“It has and it continues to be a complex situation, and we’re going to work through it. Whatever happens, whatever the outcome is, they’re not going to be onerous. They’re not going to be big brother. It is going to be part of a partnership moving forward.”
Unconfirmed figures have the Flo deal at under-but-near $1 million a year for seven years. It’s unclear if this sale will actually put money in USA Rugby’s coffers or simply mitigate its losses as all of the RIM consequences are still being sorted.
“Some of that finer detail we’re still working through,” said Young of the Flo deal. “Mark Lambourne, Jon Bobbett and Pam have done a phenomenal job in getting a solution where we really understand the financials. There are obviously different creditors and various different investors at various different levels that need to be factored into whatever the solution is. There’s still work to be done on that. Being that majority shareholder, if you like, when all is said and done and things are re-merged and brought back into one, you would hope there’s some upside [for USA Rugby].”
Despite the overwhelming amount of uncertainty, Young has nailed down some must-dos for the future.
“Ultimately, the long-term goal is we can now focus on development and youth, make sure there’s value to the membership, and there are already some great signs – to have the national representative teams from senior all the way through the age grade performing to the best of their ability. The national governing body’s role in that is to provide the support mechanisms for all those things to happen. They have to be structured in the right way with the right people and the right objectives to make sure that happens.”
Imagine a caged ring. In the middle sits a thick, juicy, perfectly-cooked steak. Surrounding the perimeter foaming at the mouth to scale the chain-link fence and take a bite are foreign unions, clubs and leagues. A major role for USA Rugby 2.0 is going to be protecting that meaty sustenance, saving it for American rugby to enjoy.
We’ve recently seen multiple occasions of outsiders coming in to carve off a chunk and take it home, never to touch American shores again. But no example is more glaring than the recent match between Wales and South Africa in Washington, D.C., which saw the Welsh and South African unions go home with a guaranteed payday while RIM, and effectively USA Rugby, lost money.
“It’s got to be one of the key responsibilities of the national governing body moving forward to ensure that, yes, we want to have the right partnerships in place to help things grow, but we want to make sure that the majority of the steak is eaten by us, not by the external entities,” Young said.
The old guard is almost out, with its biggest sins being mismanaging millions in seed money mostly provided by English investors connected to World Rugby. That mismanagement, including South Africa and Wales committing highway robbery on a USA Rugby-owned property, threatened to undercut the millions of dollars World Rugby supplies to USA Rugby in the way of high performance grants.
In response, USA Rugby’s outgoing CEO and current World Rugby employee handed the keys to the current interim CEO (and future permanent CEO or COO), who also happens to be a long-time World Rugby man. The deal USA Rugby made in transition between the two will see World Rugby take a seat on USA Rugby’s board.
USA Rugby needs financial assistance, but the line of credit comes with strings attached. It needs experienced, qualified leaders, but the obvious candidates have alliances with the creditor. USA Rugby needs to protect itself from foreign entities trying to take food off its plate, but they keep folding foreigners into their new leadership. These forks in the road, apparent conflicts and potential pitfalls, and more importantly how they’re navigated, will set the table for USA Rugby 2.0.