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No official press release has been sent out, nor will it be, but the Varsity Cup is done. Founded by BYU in 2012, with its first postseason being staged in 2013, the competition was a team-driven independent entity which struck partnerships and sponsorships with United World Sports, NBC and Penn Mutual.
BYU claimed the first three titles, the third of which was eventually stripped for fielding an ineligible player. Cal won the final two. Every championship game, except the last in 2017, featured the Golden Bears and Cougars. BYU, facing sanction for said eligibility violation, opted out of the competition prior to what turned out to be its final year.
The result of the Varsity Cup’s demise is the first unified national championship, in which all of the expectant contenders are competing, since 2011.
Why it Existed
In 2011, the College Premier Division, which would become D1A, was created. The idea was to get the best programs from across the country playing better competition week in and week out. There would be better refereeing, more structure, and the championship game would be treated with more pomp and circumstance. The competition was infused with a high performance grant from World Rugby, allowing for the final to be put on television. For the first time ever, USA Rugby employed a collegiate director.
That first year, Cal and BYU met in front of somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 mostly paying fans at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Yet the teams that attracted the attendance didn’t get any money, despite outlaying considerable funds to qualify for the event. Years prior, the National Guard engaged in a seven-figure sponsorship with USA Rugby in the effort to recruit college players. Outside of some games being put on ESPNU, the money didn’t trickle down to the college programs, or at least not enough to silence doubters. And that significant six-figure HP grant from World Rugby? There were a lot of questions levied about where it all went.
For those reasons, plus the fact that USA Rugby was changing its eligibility regulations, and those changes didn’t jibe with the practice of playing veterans and those who served religious missions, like much of BYU’s ranks, and the fact that USA Rugby had been the caretaker of collegiate rugby for more than 30 years without sufficient improvement, BYU founded the Varsity Cup and seven other blueblood teams jumped in.
How it Existed
D1A and the Varsity Cup were direct competitors. Some might argue, but there’s not really much of an argument to be made. They both called themselves national championships, and they both played in the same time window. And despite Cal, Air Force and BYU, the owners of 30 of the 32 unified collegiate titles in history all being part of the Varsity Cup for most of its run, USA Rugby collegiate director Rich Cortez referred to the Varsity Cup in the mainstream media as a mythical championship.
So it was an acrimonious relationship, for sure. The contentiousness even worked its way into conference politics. When Arkansas State decided to leave D1A for the Varsity Cup in 2015, it was essentially booted out of the Mid-South Conference.
One of the benefits to Varsity Cup membership was that the playoffs were predetermined and held on campus, which meant teams didn’t have to book travel to some far-flung neutral site on two weeks’ notice anymore. One of the major achievements was that outside of the first year, prior to striking a partnership with UWS, the Varsity Cup final was aired live on national television via the NBC Sports Network. It, like USA Rugby couldn’t do, garnered a massive title sponsorship that stuck around for a few years in Penn Mutual. It also gave autonomy to the coaches, who together decided everything.
Its biggest detraction was that it was an elitist, invitation-only competition. No matter how great a regular season run you had, you could not simply qualify for the Varsity Cup. You had to be invited. And in order to be invited, you probably had to be a program at a school with a big brand name. The lone exception was Central Washington, which came in to replace a suspended Utah. The Wildcats had recently gone varsity within its athletic department.
Some of those brand-name teams weren’t very competitive, which emboldened Varsity Cup critics. Notre Dame lost to Cal 77-0 one year. Another year Cal hung 100 on Texas.
But, like in any competition, if two forces try really hard to beat each other, they often improve. So D1A has had to answer tough questions from its membership on financial controls and how its money is spent. For the first time last season, the D1A final was broadcast live nationally on CBS Sports Network, where it had been streamed live and broadcast in tape delay in years past. It’s expected that D1A will be broadcast live nationally again in 2018.
It reverted to on-campus playoff matches so at least one team doesn’t have to fork out a fortune to participate. It’s doled out thousands in travel reimbursements each season. And the coaches have a lot more autonomy than they used to. So the existence and professionalism of the Varsity Cup has, even if in small increments, made D1A get some of its house in order.
How it Ended
BYU left between the 2016 and 2017 seasons amid the controversy of playing an ineligible player in the 2015 final, center Hoseki Kofe. Ultimately, BYU didn’t like that it had been caught, how it was caught, that it was being punished, and it didn’t want to accept its punishment. Its website still claims having won the 2015 Varsity Cup title, even though the other coaches in the competition voted to strip it of that championship. BYU, for its part, felt the privacy of its student-athletes was violated in the process and its administration, not rugby staff, ultimately seemed to drive the bus in its exit.
Without BYU, which participated in every commercially successful major national championship game from 2011-2016, the Varsity Cup final failed to stand on its own from a financial standpoint. The first four Varsity Cup finals had all been played in Utah in front of sizeable, BYU-partisan crowds – they sold out BYU’s South Field in 2013 and 2016, and they averaged more than 9,000 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium in 2014 and 2015. At Stevens Stadium on Santa Clara’s campus, about an hour from Cal’s, the crowd was very sparse in 2017.
That played a big part in UWS’s decision to back away from running the competition’s championship, and UWS brought both Penn Mutual and NBC to the table. Following the 2017 title game, UWS and NBC parted ways after years of working together to produce broadcasts for the USA Sevens and the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship. So without UWS, NBC and Penn Mutual, there was no television and no money to produce a professional final. And without that, there wasn’t much reason for the Varsity Cup to continue.
What We’re Left With
Nearly all of the teams which have ever competed in the Varsity Cup are in D1A. Some were always D1A members via their conference affiliation, but chose instead to compete in the Varsity Cup postseason. Last month was the D1A’s deadline for teams to declare themselves eligible for the 2018 playoffs. Cal, Arkansas State, Navy, Central Washington, Army, and Penn State all declared. So expect to see them all in the D1A playoff next spring, or at least competing for a berth.
In the pre-Varsity Cup days, the playoffs were almost always a competition for second place, with Cal usually claiming the title. Then BYU came along, and it got more competitive. That coincided with the emergence of the Varsity Cup.
Once the Cougars and Bears jumped from D1A, St. Mary’s started occasionally beating the Bears in the regular season, and Life emerged as a legitimate power. So the D1A tournament was really a race to see who finished third and fourth behind Life and St. Mary’s, while the Varsity Cup was a race to see who finished behind Cal and BYU. Now, they’re all in the same pool.
So, if chalk were to hold, a final four of Cal, BYU, St. Mary’s and Life would produce three highly intriguing, competitive matches. And quarterfinals could see Central Washington, Arkansas State, Lindenwood, Penn State, Army, Navy and others take their best shot at the top four, who’ve won all the titles. There could even be some very competitive first-round matches including the likes of Notre Dame College, Indiana, San Diego State and Utah Valley or Arizona.
The Varsity Cup was a very good, even if imperfect, thing. For five straight years, it did what collegiate rugby had never been able to do before – put a highly intriguing collegiate final on national television in front of thousands of paying fans, all thanks to engaging a commercial partner who helped bring a big multi-year corporate sponsorship to the table. If nothing else, the Varsity Cup proved it was possible.
However, with the emergence of varsity and quasi-varsity programs like Central Washington, Life and Lindenwood, and club programs like St. Mary’s closing the gap, and others like Indiana working diligently to do so, the timing may be just right for collegiate playoff rugby to become a worthy product. Whether or not USA Rugby and its current makeup is in position to put it on an appropriate pedestal, with upwards of 10,000 paying fans in the stands, remains to be seen.