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(Editor's note: the original version of this article incorrectly and unfairly referenced San Francisco coach Paul Keeler. It's been removed.)
As the first PRO Rugby season comes to a close this weekend, there are two pressing questions at hand – who will be the first champion of professional rugby in America, and will there be a second season?
The answer to the former is either the Ohio Aviators (8-3) or the Denver Stampede (10-1). Their records indicate Denver is the favorite, but a closer look might hint otherwise. They’ve split head-to-head this season. The Stampede won the first meeting, the first-ever professional game in America, 16-13, in the midst of a Denver blizzard in week one. Ohio won the return match, also in Denver, 48-27.
Look a little deeper, and Ohio edges ahead as the favorite – it took four knocked-on tries and a game-winning penalty (and that blizzard) for the Stampede to win the first go-around, and they were fortunate the Aviators didn’t hang 60 on them the second time. Ohio’s also riding a five-game streak during which they’ve scored at least 40 points-an-outing. The Aviators hung 71 on San Francisco.
One of the key differences between these teams is their personnel makeup. Denver’s roster has a lot of local influence, as the overwhelming majority of its players were playing on local clubs with and against each other before the inception of PRO Rugby. Ohio is the polar opposite. The Aviators have fewer locally-based players than any team in the league. They had to build a culture from scratch, which head coach Paul Barford says was a good thing.
“We had no preconceptions. I had an idea of what I wanted the team to be like. They bought into it, and they created the culture. I said this is the guidelines, let’s find us a culture we want,” Barford told Rugby Today. “They called it ‘the Ohio Man’. It was based on, ‘this is what boys are like, and this is what men are like. We’re Ohio men, and this is what we’re going to be like.’”
Ohio also sunk its teeth into conditioning, and the Aviators’ superior fitness has been evident in the latter half of the season, especially in the rematch with Denver, which was played in 100-degree heat.
“We beasted them in the first month, and no one quit. And that was the standard we set. Everybody helped each other, even if it meant dragging someone across the line or picking them up, no one was left behind,” said Barford.
“We have this sled that we push. It’s a one-man sled. We put 500 pounds on it. At the first practice, one person managed to pull and push it 45 yards in a minute. The last practice, every man on the team pushed it. That’s the standard we want.”
Where Denver’s familiarity within the team helped the Stampede to a 6-0 start, Ohio stumbled a bit out of the gates with inconsistency, as one might expect from a team full of coaches and players just getting to know one another. The staff had to figure the right blend of personnel, and it had to deal with the loss of capped Eagle flyhalf JP Eloff early on.
“You adapt. You just play what you have. You can’t complain or whine. That’s part of the ‘Ohio Man’ thing,” said Barford. “We played San Francisco with four scrumhalves in the backline. We lost, but we learned a lot from that, which is don’t play four scrumhalves in the backline.”
Another person who’s learned a lot this first season is the only man who can answer that other pressing question – will there be a second one? – and that’s Schoninger.
Through the last several months, there have been whispers of complaints and unhappy and unpaid people under the league’s umbrella. The first round of player paychecks didn’t come when they were supposed to. The credit card used for team meals has been declined on multiple occasions. There have been rumblings of vendors being paid late.
“There’s always two sides to a story. We all have issues with people who bill us that aren’t correct,” said Schoninger, who ran the league's finances entirely by himself the first several weeks before hiring a bookkeeper.
“Some of those are operations issues. We have a $20,000 limit on the credit card that all the coaches use. No one’s supposed to charge anything other than meals. Someone charged $10,000. I check it every two days. I didn’t check it. Things like that happen. These are immaterial. If those are the biggest complaints, I’m happy.
“Every player that should be paid, has been paid. There’s been some issues with certain trainers and stuff like that, but there’s stuff like that in every business. The employer’s not always wrong.
“The offices are completely paid for, the venues are completely paid for, the gyms are completely paid for. There was the first month, every venue, office sends me a bill, they didn’t send me a bill, didn’t get paid, they call, I say, ‘Oh my God you didn’t send me a bill.’ They say, ‘We don’t send bills.’ I said, ‘Okay, here.’ These are not issues.
They are issues, and they’ve become a point of contention between Schoninger and director of rugby Steve Lewis.
“Steve always harps me, ‘You’ve got to fix it this year,’” said Schoninger. “By the time I fix it, the season’s over. Let’s not even focus on fixing it. We’ll just get through it. Nothing’s horrible. We’ll get a couple little stories like this that something hasn’t been paid, but it’s fine. That’s not important. What’s important is that the games happen, they’re safe, the players are developing, we get through it.”
For the most part, he’s right. The games have been played. The standard has gotten better. Players are developing.
“Players are happy. Coaches are happy. The physicality is way up from club games, and you’re starting to see now players know each other a little bit better, coaches have had their time with them, so you’re starting to see a bit more fluency. I’m pretty happy with it. The rugby’s good,” added Lewis.
“It’s been a challenging year, but we always knew it was going to be. We all have our frustrations, but I think I’m quite happy with the rugby part, which is what I was charged with delivering.”
And the bit Schoninger mentioned about ‘getting through it’, that’s basically what he’s been saying all along.
“This year is very much about getting it done,” he reiterated. “All in all, we weren’t flawless in our execution, but I think in a macro level we were. I think our plan was right. It was executed well. I think some of the mess was actually good, because it lets us figure what works and what doesn’t...
"We’re hobbling through it, but that’s okay. The important thing is the players, they’re getting the attention they need. We’ll fix our operational issues. It’s a matter of style – this is my style. I do the payroll every two weeks. If I didn’t do that I wouldn’t know every player's name, I wouldn’t know who every player was. No regrets."
Part of the story of this inaugural year has been constant change. Broadcast details from week to week have been elusive, the webcast moved from AOL to in-house midseason. Denver’s venue changed. Andre Snyman stepped down from the Stampede staff midseason. Teams picked up names along the way. Some players were cut, and new ones were signed.
“When you go through the process as a startup, which we are, it’s important to stay flexible. Always. If you have a defined plan, you’re going to limit your options without question. And I’ve seen that already with myself. So we’re keeping that, and that will hopefully stay that way for the next couple years until we figure out who we are, and who America wants us to be,” said Schoninger of the many changes.
“It’s not as easy as a lot of people like to think it is. You’re not always in control of every decision. I like to say I’m in control of about 10-percent of my decisions. Paul Holmes, assistant coach of Ohio, told me that it was actually three-percent. I was like, ‘oh, it’s worse than I thought.’”
So about next year. Schoninger says it will definitely happen. Players are being told it will definitely happen. The boss man is now actively talking to outside investors and potential sponsors, more and more each day he says, which he wasn’t open to prior to the first season. They will probably help drive what that possible next season could look like.
In a Forbes article published in June, Schoninger was paraphrased as saying the league is breaking even. That, he says, was false.
“This year we will not break even, for sure. Next year we are forecasting if we don’t expand, we’ll be plus or minus breaking even. We probably will expand, which means we won’t be break even.”
Where and by how many will the league expand? That’s unknown. Schoninger is still in talks about adding some teams north of the border. There’s obviously room for expansion on the east coast. At different points in the same interview, he said he thought the league would have six and 8-10 teams next year.
“We don’t want to ever be bigger than the market, but at the same token sponsors want us to be larger,” he said. “A lot of that is going to be dependent on whether Canada joins us or not. I would think it would be great for Canada to join us next year.”
Attendance has been hit-and-miss this season. Most of the venues saw robust crowds at their home openers, and some have maintained smaller but still relatively impressive numbers, while others have dwindled drastically.
“Each venue is very different. We had a month to activate the first game, and in some cases only one week. San Diego was particularly tough, because we had to leave early because they’re doing some capital improvement to the stadium. So a lot of back-to-back games there – very hard to activate when we have week in and week out. San Diego’s not a particularly great spectator sports crowd. I was actually impressed with our last game there, about 2,000. I think next year we’ll double that, for sure,” said Schoninger.
“We have not at all reached out to the local community outside of the rugby community. We feel next year that will be a lot easier now that we have assets to show. We can do a lot of presales. We weren’t selling anything in January last year. This year we’re going to be selling a whole bunch in November. A whole different story.”
And it probably needs to be. Attendance is the most obvious indicator of a league’s health and chances of survival, and that’s not lost on Schoninger.
“I’m a market-driven guy,” he said. “If no one ultimately wants to come, then why am I doing it? But you can’t say that in your first year. You can start saying in your second year. I think, already, indication is quite positive.”