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Before checking out of USA Rugby altogether, outgoing CEO Nigel Melville re-upped a sanctioning deal with William Tatham, Jr., extending him exclusive sanctioning to own, operate, and globally broadcast professional 7s in the United States through 2024.
Tatham’s Grand Prix Rugby idea, which has morphed into a 24-team, three-day tournament with $1 million in prize money, has been on the table since 2005, when he was first granted exclusive sanctioning by Melville and USA Rugby. Despite press releases, promises and failed attempts over 11 years, Tatham has never produced the competition.
In 2013, he got so far as naming a venue – then the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. – a broadcast partner in the NFL Network and several participant unions, like those of USA, Fiji and New Zealand. Tickets even went on sale. The Home Depot Center, NFL Network and the New Zealand Rugby Union all issued press releases about the event. However, true to form, nothing came to fruition.
If you go to the Grand Prix’s site, the most recent press release is from 2013, and the logo at the top of the page says 2014. Tatham is now telling people it’s going to happen in 2017.
The extension of the deal was signed by Melville on June 10, over a month after it was announced that Melville would be leaving USA Rugby and its subsidiary, Rugby International Marketing, for the Rugby Football Union, England’s governing body.
The rumored amount Tatham paid for the original sanctioning rights in 2005 was $250,000. He’s re-upped multiple times since then, so it’s likely USA Rugby has made significant money off the agreement, but with no professional 7s competition to show for it.
That’s in stark contrast to the way Melville and USA Rugby worked the sanctioning for PRO Rugby, which is about to wrap up its first season. That agreement put PRO Rugby on a shot-clock of sorts, saying it had to produce a league in 2016 or it would lose its exclusive sanctioning.
Such a clause is to ensure someone doesn’t pay for the golden ticket and never visit the chocolate factory. Using that analogy, Tatham has held the golden ticket for 11 years, and he’ll hold it for eight more, but he’s never visited the chocolate factory. He’s said he was on his way to the land of sweet delights many times, but never actually got there, providing no reason to believe he’ll ever get there.
The problem is, Tatham holds the only ticket to this metaphorical candied heaven, meaning the recently re-upped deal prevents any other interested parties from bringing professional 7s to the United States. The only person who can award $10,000 or more for a single 7s tournament in the USA is Tatham. If he holds onto the exclusive sanctioning through the life of the current agreement, he'll have owned professional 7s in America for 19 years.
The main difference in the new agreement from those past is that Rugby International Marketing, not USA Rugby, is the Grand Prix’s agency of record. As such, RIM is on the hook for commercial support and event staging services.
On June 24th, four days before USA Rugby announced Jim Snyder as interim CEO and 11 days before Dan Payne was announced as the incoming CEO, Melville issued a letter as USA Rugby’s chief executive affirming the new sanctioning agreement.
“At the request of Mr. Tatham, I write to confirm that our partnership is in good standing both legally and personally, and further commit my personal support to Mr. Tatham’s efforts,” wrote Melville. “It has been a pleasure working with Mr. Tatham in the furtherance of his efforts to obtain funding for Grand Prix Rugby, LLC.”
Multiple times in the letter Melville references his personal relationship with Tatham, but not once does he acknowledge that he is already one foot out the door of USA Rugby at the time of its drafting.