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Tony Ridnell in action for the USA

Tony Ridnell wants to chair the USA Rugby board of directors. Who cares, you might say? What does that have to do with me, you might ask? The entire goal of this column is for you, whether you’re a low-level senior club player, a newly minted collegiate recruit, a high school coach, a referee, a rugby parent, an Eagle or an old boy, to understand why this matters.

In order to get to that point, I’m going to outline for you why you should care about the board and its happenings, why it is in need of big change, why Ridnell is a good agent for this change, and what you can do to affect positive change.

Let’s start with who Tony Ridnell is. The portion of the American rugby community that’s engaged and knowledgeable beyond its silo, sector or generation is somewhat small. So you may have heard of Tony Ridnell, as in the past two years he’s been making some newsworthy noise, but let me clear up any potential confusion once and for all.

Ridnell is an Eagle. He earned 14 caps for the United States in 15s starting in the mid ‘80s, when the Eagles played so few games that 14 caps was a lot. Playing mostly in the back row, Ridnell appeared in the first two World Cups, the first 7s World Cup and five Hong Kong 7s. He is a product of West Point, having played for Army in college. After his playing career, he started a chemical sales company, of which he is the CEO. He touts that it is the same size as USA Rugby from a personnel perspective, while the company purports over $40 million in revenue.

That’s who he is. His quest is to gain a board seat, and it tracks back to the 2015 World Cup, and in particular, one game – the USA’s 64-0 defeat at the hands of South Africa. He was in attendance, and that embarrassing result set him on what’s been a nearly two-year crusade to get to the root issues facing the Eagles and USA Rugby and to affect change. It started on social media, picked up steam, and it’s bled over to his personal blog. (It's a good resource if you're interested in his platform or ideas for the future.) 

He was nominated for a board seat earlier this year, as two came open, but did not get past the interview with Marni Vath, the chair of USA Rugby’s nominating committee. His bid effectively died in that one meeting. The two people nominated to fill the seats are Chad Keck, an incumbent board member, and Barbara O’Brien – former Lieutenant Governor of Colorado whose son, Conner, played at Cal. Their appointments are to be ratified at the USA Rugby Congress meeting at the end of the month.

This isn’t about Ridnell. This is about the present and future of American rugby, and right now USA Rugby is holding on by a thread. ‘That seems drastic. We just qualified for the World Cup as Americas 1 for the first time ever, we won our first major tournament since 1924, and the men and women participated in the Olympics. Things don’t seem so bad.’

The Board does impact the on-the-field stuff, no doubt, but in a trickle down manner. Will Chang and Peter Seccia aren’t the reason the men’s 7s team is playing historically well. Mike Friday, Chris Brown, Perry Baker, Madison Hughes and the several others who they’d share their credit with, are. Jeremiah Johnson and Robert Kimmitt didn’t make any tackles in the World Cup qualifiers against Canada. Dean Barrett and Rob King won’t score any tries for our women in Ireland next month. They didn’t help turn Alev Kelter from an intriguing crossover athlete into a world-class rugby player.

Don’t let on-the-field success fool you – recent strides have been made despite sparse resources. And providing guidance, high-level connections, leadership and business acumen which result in the growth of resources, both human and financial, is exactly what the board is supposed to do. Instead of leading us to that water for a drink, the board has led USA Rugby to a financial desert.

There is a well-known $1 million budget shortfall this year, and rumor has it the situation is much more desperate than that. The high performance department exceeded last year’s budget by somewhere around $800,000. Add the shortfall to the overspend, and you’re looking at a gaping hole, especially for a non-profit with meager cash reserves. In a World Cup year, the union has had to beg, scrape and claw to fund a camp that saw the women’s Eagles get just one match, a rout against a domestic all-star side, in preparation for the big show. 

How does USA Rugby get out of this financial crunch? Sell more tickets to rugby games? Attract more sponsorships? Licensing? No, no and no. These revenue streams were all signed over to Rugby International Marketing – the for-profit subsidiary USA Rugby owns 75-percent of. In return, RIM gives USA Rugby a fixed annual allowance. This year that allowance is a little over $1.2 million. Next year it’s $1.8 million and change. And in 2019 it’s a hair under $1.1 million.

USA Rugby has exactly four revenue streams – RIM licensing agreement as stated above, membership, high performance grants and philanthropy. The RIM income is fixed. Membership is mostly dollar in, dollar out, and the union is batting around a slight dues increase, its first in years, to account for nothing more than the incremental increased cost of operating. HP grants are specifically tied to certain expenses. World Rugby doesn’t just write a check for the recipient to allocate where it wishes – that money is effectively spent before the check clears.

When the RIM licensing agreement is renegotiated prior to 2020, there’s little reason to hope that there will be much, if any, more meat on the bone. RIM CEO David Sternberg has said publicly The Rugby Channel, RIM’s only year-round business, has lost about $1.5 million to date. With very limited content, it’s not hard to predict it will lose much more. The 7s World Cup, as stated by its organizers publicly, is aiming to break even, with the best-case scenario being making a few million and the worst-case scenario being losing a few million. So can’t bank on influx there.

I say all that to point to the fact that USA Rugby’s financial situation isn’t going to get a whole lot better anytime soon, unless philanthropic giving goes through the roof. Even then, it won’t allow the union to alleviate everything equitably, as 80-percent of the philanthropic money USA Rugby receives comes with conditions, indicating a lack of trust.

The union is also still in the middle of a stare down with PRO. I fear there’s a belief in the rugby community that this PRO headache isn’t a big deal and it’s behind us – ‘Some players, coaches and vendors didn’t get paid, but we have Major League Rugby, Super 7s and the Pro 12 all on the horizon now, so what’s the harm? Let’s just move on.’

USA Rugby has a couple of months left before it has to notify PRO that it doesn’t want to renew its relationship, at which time, based on all the posturing by owner Doug Schoninger, PRO seems poised to sue the union for breaching its exclusive sanctioning agreement. If Schoninger follows through on his stated intention to litigate, at best it’s going to further hamstring an already cash-strapped union until the issue is resolved. At worst, Schoninger wins a judgment in the millions, which would be catastrophic. That’s his intention.  

Equity, if it were a laughing matter, would be a joke. While John Mitchell was receiving an annual salary of about $260,000 a year to coach the men’s 15s national team, Pete Steinberg was paid a nominal amount to coach the women. While the men’s 15s players receive a $100 per diem when assembled, a pittance in its own right, the women have traditionally not received a penny, though philanthropic fundraising efforts have reportedly seen them get some this summer.

These are the massive issues. They don’t include a completely splintered collegiate landscape, a broken player pathway, dearth of coach and referee development and the upside-down pyramid of player population. Somewhere in all those issues is something that can, does or will trickle down to affect every single person in the rugby community.

For example, USA Rugby partially subsidizes the pay for administrators of several state-based organizations. If the union takes a big enough hit, so could those funds which directly impact high school rugby around the country. USA Rugby has hired regional development officers in charge of growing the youth game, the pre-high school game. More money means more RDOs and more children playing rugby, and less money equals less RDOs and less children playing rugby. 

That’s why you should care. USA Rugby is the umbrella that covers every aspect of rugby union in the United States, from Rookie Rugby on up. And if that umbrella starts flapping in the wind, we all get wet.

These issues all fall at the feet of the board of directors. An argument could be made that outgoing CEO Nigel Melville is to blame. I would tend to agree that he is certainly responsible for much of the dysfunction, but whose responsibility is it to check the CEO? You guessed it – the board’s.

Specifically, the board had its hand on the PRO agreement. “It received the endorsement of the full board, and everybody considered it,” Bob Latham told Rugby Today. Latham was the board’s chair at the time the agreement was signed.

Will Chang, the current chair who served on the board when the agreement was signed, is paraphrased in meeting minutes as having told Congress, “The entire Board saw the agreement and were given the opportunity to comment on it. Nigel was the primary negotiator of it.”

So the potential for the sanctioning of PRO to come back and bite USA Rugby in a big way, on top of the union’s membership being mistreated in the form of unpaid coaches and players, falls squarely on the board, which has yet to take full responsibility for its poor decision making.

The creation and implementation of RIM falls at the board’s feet, too. This is a big one. RIM now has complete control of all of USA Rugby’s traditional revenue streams, minus membership and straight donation. The biggest of those assets include events (like the Rugby Weekend, big test matches, etc.), licensing and corporate sponsorships.

For those, as we’ve already outlined, USA Rugby is receiving an average of about $1.3 million over the first three years of the licensing agreement. Through just those assets, USA Rugby netted $2.3 million in 2013, $2.6 million in 2014 and $1.8 million in 2015. Those are the three years prior to RIM’s creation, and during that stretch USA Rugby pulled in an average profit of $2.3 million a year. So thanks to RIM, USA Rugby is, on average, $1 million leaner every year from 2017-2019 than it was from 2013-2015. 

The only people on USA Rugby’s nine-person board who should receive a pass are Phaidra Knight, Todd Clever, and Dean Barrett. Clever and Knight joined in 2017 as the board’s requisite international athlete representatives, and Barrett joined the board in 2016. Jeremiah Johnson took over as the requisite congress rep in 2015, so RIM’s creation can’t be pinned on him, but he was there during the PRO conversation.

Every other standing member of the board – Will Chang, Rob King, Chad Keck, Robert Kimmitt and Peter Seccia – have been around long enough to take responsibility for the creation of RIM, the sanctioning of PRO, and the union’s consistent lack of fiscal responsibility.

The idea of RIM is that it allows for outside investment so the union can do really big and cool things, like host World Cups and create profitable businesses that will eventually pay off for USA Rugby in the form of future licensing agreements or kickbacks once RIM’s cash flow allows.

But one might argue that going from paying our women’s national team players absolutely nothing to the same amount as the men, consistently, would have been a logical step in the union’s development before trying to play with the big boys running events we’re potentially not ready to run. Keep in mind, we’re not very far removed from USA Rugby losing hundreds of thousands of dollars operating USA 7s on its own – now they’re supposed to put on a successful World Cup?

Even if you’re still behind the idea and vision of RIM, the way the entity was created was sketchy. USA Rugby, in an effort to become more transparent under sophomore-to-be CEO Dan Payne, has published board meeting minutes dating back to Jan. 25, 2013. The first mention in those minutes of Rugby International Marketing, or anything like it, is at the Oct. 31, 2014 meeting, when, “Chad confirmed that the company is now set up and the board have met. The license agreement between USA Rugby and RIM is being finalized. Chad then presented the Mission for RIM and outlined the next steps.”

In the previous seven meetings, for which minutes are published and available, there was no mention of this Earth-shattering, game-changing thing that was going to see USA Rugby’s most prized assets gambled into a for-profit entity? I don’t buy the fact that the board didn’t discuss RIM at its meetings for an entire calendar year, and 10 months of another one, and that when they finally did talk about it, things were already being “finalized”. The only logical conclusion is that either these discussions were intentionally ommitted from the minutes, or they didn't happen. 

Congress also had to sign off on the creation of RIM. Instead of doing a proper presentation at one congress meeting, then allowing time for that elected body to really consider the deal from all angles and come back to the next meeting to ask questions and discuss it, the board rammed the approval through via a conference call. In late August of 2014, the board first told Congress it needed a call to discuss something important, RIM. Then there was a conference call on Sept. 5. Three days later a consent form was distributed to Congress members for them to cast their vote on the creation of RIM, and the votes were due by Sept. 12. So, with no in-person meeting or back-and-forth, and without the numbers that would eventually make up the licensing agreement, RIM was approved by Congress. This, less than two months before Keck described things as "finalized".  

Even if RIM was created with the best of intentions and was properly vetted, discussed and approved amongst the board itself, the lack of transparency from the board of a membership organization is unacceptable.

All of these reasons are why the board needs drastic change. The inclusion of Knight and Clever is a step in the right direction. These two have largely been the faces of our respective senior national teams for the better part of 20 years – they didn’t take any shit on the field, and they aren’t the type to take any off it. They’re also wildly outnumbered by the people who have put USA Rugby in its current situation.

This was evidenced in their first-ever vote as board members. In April, Clever and Knight participated in a board meeting for the first time. At this meeting, the board also needed to elect a representative to sit on the nominating committee – that committee whose chair shot down Ridnell the first time. This committee has immense power, as it directly affects how the board is seated. Keck nominated Jeremiah Johnson, a great grassroots rugby man, but a member of the board responsible for PRO nonetheless. Kimmitt seconded. Knight nominated Clever. Barrett cited Robert’s Rules of Order, and the group voted on Johnson – he was elected to the nominations committee with five yesses and two nos. Knight and Clever were the only ones who voted no.

We need more voices willing to ask questions and vote no occasionally. Ridnell would supply that. 

The last 30 or so paragraphs only outline the egregious bits that might lead one to the conclusion that our board has made some really poor decisions that are damaging, or have the potential to cause damage to, the union. It doesn't even include the lack of actual performance.

Chang is on the board because he owns, at least in part, a few different professional sports franchises and has a portfolio that includes strong ties to companies like Solo Shot, a robotic camera that follows a subject (maybe a referee, allowing rugby games to be filmed without anyone manning the camera?) while it moves around, and a gluten-free craft beer. (Last I heard, rugby players like beer.) Rob King is on the board because he's a very successful businessman with a litany of career triumphs, including being the CEO of CytoSport, the company that owns Muscle Milk. Dean Barrett is on the board because of his stout resume, which includes the title of senior vice president of McDonald's.

Yet, USA Rugby isn't sponsored by McDonald's, Muscle Milk, or Solo Shot. It's been sponsored by Fly Emirates and has a bad deal, which Chang openly admitted to at the first-ever Rugby Business Executives Association meeting in June, with Adidas. The deal's so bad the 7s teams opted to wear BLK shorts, decorated with an old sponsor, Heathrow Express (a shuttle at the London airport!), after the switch to Adidas, because the Adidas shorts didn't fit. 

The point is, even if you haven't come to the conclusion that the board has made harmful decisions, how could you not at least come to the conclusion that, as a whole, it's underachieved?

In the wake of that RBEA meeting held in conjunction with the Canada match in San Diego, Ridnell has asked for Congress to not ratify one of the nominees, Keck or O’Brien, instead opening the path for him to be reconsidered and named to the board.

It’s a bold move, indeed, considering that at the most recent Congress meeting in February Chang charged Congress with voting for their confidence in the board or a lack thereof, and it was nearly unanimous in favor of the board, with two abstentions and Steve Lewis (former PRO director and a long-time, well-known coach) supplying the lone vote of no confidence.

So Ridnell has a steep hill to climb to convince the majority of congress to not ratify Keck or O’Brien. Specifically, he’s called for Keck’s nomination to not be ratified. This makes sense for multiple reasons. Firstly, Keck already serves on the RIM board. So if you're a big fan of his, we’re already getting his talents with his inclusion in RIM. Why not welcome someone else to the board and get double the talents? It’d be like getting Mark Cuban and Daymond John in a Shark Tank deal. Secondly, and this one is for those who aren't a fan of RIM, Keck was central to the creation of RIM and has been on the board since 2013, making him as responsible for the current state as anyone. Thirdly, the board honestly needs more than one female member, so O’Brien’s inclusion is more than welcome. It’s necessary.

The Case for Ridnell
Remember, this isn’t about Tony Ridnell. This is about USA Rugby desperately needing new leadership at the board level. Picture Rookie Eagle (the USA Rugby mascot) standing at a fork in the road. To the left is complete financial ruin. The middle prong is the same hapless path we’ve been on, that with a little luck, will see us avoid ruin and instead settle for continued underachievement. To the right there’s a semblance of a path. It’s covered with branches and rocks and hard work, but at the end of it there’s real progress, transparency and accountability. That’s the path USA Rugby desperately needs to go down, and Ridnell is simply the guy willing to roll up his sleeves and help clear it.

He just also happens to be a qualified, interested party who has put in more hard yards in seeking a nomination than any other independent member actually on the board. He’s both an American rugby man and a successful businessman.

It’s true, Tony was largely absent from the rugby community between his playing years and the 2015 World Cup. He was building a business that’s done $40 million in revenue. Tough to do that while lining fields, coaching the tots and serving on the local body's disciplinary committee. That’s not a weakness – it’s a strength. But over the last two years, no one has asked more questions of more stakeholders across every single level of play in the United States, in an effort to understand the state of the game from all angles, than Tony Ridnell. He is in touch with what’s going on.

I love that people are asking questions of Ridnell on social media, like what’s he done in the rugby community lately, is he qualified, should he serve somewhere other than the board before jumping straight to the top of the totem pole? In a properly functioning membership organization, these are all questions every board member should be asked. Every congressman should have to answer them. But that’s not been the case for decades, if ever.

Members didn’t have a vehicle to throw questions at Will Chang before he came on in 2012. There was no public grilling of Dean Barrett in the last year. There should have been. But that didn’t stop the board from being populated with the people who have put us here, and it shouldn’t stop us from righting the ship, either. And, to be fair, Ridnell has addressed his critics. He’s transparent. He’s accessible. And most importantly, he cares. That’s the biggest point.

Apathy, along with blind faith, is USA Rugby’s biggest enemy. Members mostly don’t care about what’s happening outside of their team, league, conference, city, region, state, division, gender, etc. They might watch the Eagles, but for an overwhelming majority of the 100,000-plus, they don’t know who our board members are, and they don't care enough to put in the effort to find out why they should care. And those that do know and do care are often too trusting of those in power above them, assuming they're doing their due diligence and acting above board. This is why USA Rugby is flat broke with no clear avenue to alleviate the financial woes. This is why PRO Rugby might go from the brink of making dreams come true to being our collective nightmare.

It’s time we as USA Rugby’s life blood, its members, stop gladly scarfing down mediocrity, underachievement and apathy as though it’s gourmet fare. Be the agent of change, of progress, of improvement. Do that by contacting your USA Rugby Congress rep and telling them you don’t want Chad Keck’s seat on the board to be renewed later this month, and that you want Ridnell in his stead.