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Dan Payne is excited, and he wants you to be, too. The newly minted CEO of USA Rugby, who officially takes over as the top man in American rugby next Monday, has to be tired. Between weekly flights from his current home in Atlanta to USA Rugby’s headquarters in Lafayette, Colo., to helping his wife with a newborn and finishing up his duties as Life’s athletic director, he hasn’t gotten a lot of sleep the last few weeks.
Even through the fog of fatigue, though, his passion and energy are crystal clear.
“In a four-month period, we will have concluded our first year of professional rugby, our men’s and women’s teams will have played in the Olympics, and we will have sold out Soldier Field for two world powers,” Payne told Rugby Today, “so I think there’s some exciting stuff going on.”
There is a lot on Payne’s plate. He has spoken with David Sternberg, interim CEO of Rugby International Marketing, about the state of USA Rugby’s for-profit subsidiary. He’s gotten his hands on the strategic plan that’s in the works. He’s chatted with Eagles 15s head coach John Mitchell and is trying to get the lowdown on the coach’s first two tours. He’s already met with American rugby dignitaries, like Dan Lyle, executive vice president of United World Sports. And he’s arranged to be in Rio here in a few weeks for rugby’s return to the Olympic Games.
But the objective that might take up the largest parcel of his time in the first several weeks on the job is getting people excited, which has seen him glued to the phone for interviews by media from South Africa to Houston, and it’ll see him traveling around trying to garner support on the ground, too.
“I’m on a lot of flights. I’m already booked up on quite a few fundraisers, speaking engagements. We’re going to be out and about discussing plans for the future, and energizing the populous, hopefully,” said Payne.
“I really feel strongly we have to continue to fundraise and support [Nikki Wiederaenders’] great efforts at the Trust and rally our community. We have to really get out and rally our community and be able to give them the plan and the vision. We have a lot we need to get done, but we need to organize everybody and share the vision. There will be a lot of hand shaking and energy over the next 60 to 90 days.”
Below, you can see what Payne had to say about some of the hot-button topics in American rugby. He addresses RIM, the task of having to unify all the different factions in American rugby, his role in the strategic plan, his vision for the growth of the game, etc. But if there’s one thing you should take away from Payne’s first few weeks and days on the job, it’s that he’s really excited about getting people excited.
“We need to brand and grow the awareness of our game in our country through increased participation, increased understanding, increased fanbase,” he said. “We just need to get excited about the brand that is USA Rugby. To do that, we need to deliver on all ends. I’m really looking forward to kind of collecting and organizing and getting people excited about rugby in America. We have to deliver that to our membership. It’s our responsibility.”
ON RIM’S RELATIONSHIP WITH USA RUGBY
"I think the definition of it is going to be somewhat fluid, and the working relationship is fairly defined. The bottom line is we’re partners. As RIM goes, we go. USA Rugby the entity will have controlling interest of RIM. RIM will have oversight and primary responsibility of sponsorships, international events, and media. As much as we can be involved with a dotted line on those items, I think we trust in the leadership of our boards and the people that are put in place to carry out those tasks."
ON HIS DISCUSSION WITH RIM’S DAVE STERNBERG
"We both kind of reiterated our goals for the company, for both entities are the same – it really, really fuels USA Rugby to a strong extent, and it’s important that we stay aligned. We discussed very, very high level thoughts on a variety of topics that are important to each of us. I think it’s something that we’ll have to drill down a lot of the detail as we continue to discuss with one another."
ON WORKING WITH THE DIFFERENT FACTIONS WITHIN USA RUGBY
"If the game is growing and there’s other parties that are taking a vested interest to promote the game, I think we need to try and work to find as many synergies as possible, because the end result is more people playing, more people watching, more people understanding the game. How that comes about can’t be done just with one entity. But we do have a responsibility to try and keep the wheels pointed in the right direction, and there needs to be some high-level oversight and some partnership to maximize that growth. And I think that’s where there might be quite a bit of opportunity. In times of growth there’s change. The game’s been growing over the last 5-10 years, and things have changed, the landscape’s changed, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing…
"I think our biggest quality in the U.S., despite being a relatively young rugby nation, is our human capital. We have so many people that are invested and so many stakeholders who are passionate about helping grow the game. That just resonates with me. That’s what inspires me about this position. It’s about the human component across the country, from expats to people who have grown up in our country, there are so many people who just want to have some purpose and content. If we can just harness that and align everybody and keep everybody working together and unify and build some bridges while we’re doing it, I think the future is strong. We’ve got to build those bridges and keep people working on the same page versus splitting off into different factions."
ON THE STRATEGIC PLAN
"That’s been going on for five or six months. It’s very in depth, and I’ve been stuck right into it for the last 10 days, really...
"It’s only fair for me to get my fingerprints on it, to have some of my input, my say and my thoughts on it. We work for a membership organization, and this is a document that’s very inclusive of our membership. It’s great, to be honest, to get a document that’s so detailed and has as much insight, like I am. That being said, we have to take all things into consideration and prioritize, and just go from there on it."
ON YOUTH GAME
"I have some key areas that I’m very passionate about, that I’m very excited about that are going to come to the forefront. I’m excited and really enthused about continuing to stoke the flames of all the great work the state-based organizations are doing and continuing to support Kurt [Weaver] and his department and to just push the game out to the 5-12 year-olds, the high school levels.
“The boys and girls that are benefitting from the state-based organizations are proof that we need to continue to drive the game at that age level and lower to where young boys and girls are learning to play the game and their parents are comfortable playing the game. When we get a six-year-old playing the game, we get usually one or two parents there who are also becoming fans of the game and that progresses all the way up through. Now we’re developing future players, future fans, future advocates of rugby.”