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(AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a follow-up column to the June story titled, “The Truth About USA Rugby’s Participation”, which includes the national governing body’s true participation numbers. In summary, we have fewer registered participants than we have since 2011, and we’re down about 12-percent over just the last two years. High school, college and senior registration set to decline for the fourth-, third-, and second-consecutive years.
Part one below is a defense of the conclusions from last month’s story, addressing feedback from trusted grassroots yeomen. Hopefully it will put some of the trend in context. Part two addresses the “why” for the drop, followed by some solutions in part three. If 6,000 words is just too much, after the intro just skip to the summary at the end.)
Rugby is the fastest growing sport in America. That’s the line we’ve all been sharing for years, now. It used to be true. It no longer is. Deconstructing it isn’t good for business.
Spelling out that rugby participation in America, by the hard numbers, is actually declining, isn’t going to help convince athletic directors, superintendents or presidents to start varsity programs. It isn’t going to sway the rich people in your city into buying a Major League Rugby team. It isn’t going to help the bar down the block decide to sponsor your after-match socials.
But if rugby participation in America is indeed declining, pretending everything’s hunky dory won’t stem the tide. First, we need to identify if there is a problem. The straight numbers make a compelling case themselves, though for the unconvinced, I’ve got some anecdotal evidence, too.
Secondly, we need to identify the root causes for the downturn. They are myriad, and no spreadsheet in the world is going to account for all of them. What factors are preventing the most people from becoming members or causing them to let their membership lapse? That's the question at hand. Lastly, we need to get a bunch of smart people on the job of figuring out how to reverse the tide.
Is there a problem?
By my best estimation, after putting more than 20,000 hours into covering the sport full-time the last decade, combined with probably another 15,000 or so in various grassroots capacities over the last 13 years, I can safely deduce, yes, there is an issue. The only point to argue is how concerned about it we should all be.
As a coach, I returned to the men’s club scene a year-and-a-half ago, having spent the previous three years fully immersed in the college game with blinders on. It felt different than I left it. Lonelier. It took some time to put my finger on why exactly, but as I began to, I started using the fingers to count.
Since I started playing rugby in 2006, there have been as many as nine active senior men’s clubs within about an hour’s drive of my hometown, Kansas City; Sundogs, Rogues, Carnivores, Topeka, Northland, Islanders, Jayhawks, Blues and KCRFC. Only two remain active. Just in my back yard, the amount of active senior men’s clubs has gone down 77-percent since ‘06.
Every once-in-a-while, traveling the country for various tournaments, tests, summits and events across all levels and in numerous roles, you see something that just sticks in your mind. Be it a 17-year-old Dylan Carrion, all 3-feet-eight, 75-pounds of him (love you, Dylan), carving up Eagles on the old West summer 7s circuit, or the signing days at Power Center Academy in Memphis, replete with cheerleaders, news crews and all.
Another one of those moments was the first time I saw Union High School out of Tulsa, Okla. Before I found rugby, I was obsessed with football. Friday Night Lights’ theatrical release was a holiday for me, just like the NFL Draft used to be and the Heineken Cup (I’ll call it what I want, thanks) knockouts still are.
I remember seeing Union’s football team play on ESPN, captivated by the magnitude of high school gridiron in Tulsa – huge stadium, huge crowd, Hollywood swagger, and that familiar “U” on the side of the helmets, but instead of green and orange, it was red and black.
When I saw that same “U” on rugby jerseys for the first time, it came with the same brand of swagger. And the same high level of performance. I saw an army of well-filled-out, murder-red jerseys laced in camo, a coaching staff that demanded respect, and what looked from the outside like an elite level of general organization on-and-off-the-pitch.
When I became a college coach, just from that first impression, I knew I needed to recruit Union. I was just a little late, as JD Stephenson at that other Lindenwood across the river was already in the chicken coop. He hauled three future Eagles out of there in one class – Chance Wenglewski, Malon Al-Jiboori and Lorenzo Thomas. I found the talent in Tulsa wasn’t secluded to Union, though it was concentrated there.
Tyren Al-Jiboori is on the Eagle pathway. Julian Montes just won a national championship with Life and signed for Rugby ATL, along with Life teammate and former high-school rival Austin White. White played for Bixby, one of the clubs that’s absorbed what’s left of Union’s program. Oklahomans I recruited helped Lindenwood-Belleville to its recent D1AA 7s national championship, and some of the best I ever saw from that state have names you wouldn’t recognize.
Coming into 2019, Union had won six-straight state titles, but didn’t defend them. Tracy and Jason Todd and Steve Ingram, who collectively coached and ran the club, moved across the country. Despite more than a decade of alumni, parents and impact in the community, that army of murder-red jerseys hardly got through one season without those three, specific people before folding.
This story isn’t unique to Union. Remember Hyde from Washington, D.C.? PJ Komongnan was a 7s Eagle from the program that also produced Jihad Khabir and Christian Adams. That beat Gonzaga (A local team beat Gonzaga?!). Head coach and founder Tal Bayer built it into a media darling, with actor Terrance Howard narrating their documentary and coverage by the New York Times and Washington Post, but even all that success and exposure couldn’t keep the club from folding within a few years of Bayer moved on.
Ask any old-head about the best rugby club he ever played against, and there’s a decent chance it no longer exists. Even our elite are fragile.
Most of the feedback I received on the numbers article seemed to accept what the data was conveying – that participation in American rugby is declining. But a vocal minority isn’t there yet.
Its reasoning fell almost exclusively into one of two categories – the number of unregistered players is significantly higher than I accounted for, or USA Rugby’s registration numbers are off in some way. Let’s address them one at a time.
The database I pulled from is believed by those in-the-know to include the best, cleanest and most accurate numbers USA Rugby has. If someone is CIPP-registered with USA Rugby, they’re in the database and accounted for. That’s where the rub lies.
Let’s start with the latter reasoning to not take the data at face value; there’s something wrong with USA Rugby’s tally.
Whereas in the past, everyone’s registration went through USA Rugby first, and then data and money were sometimes disseminated to geographical governing bodies, now many of the state-based rugby organizations who run high school rugby collect the cash and info first before sending them to USA Rugby in a process known as a bulk- or batch-uploading.
The added layer could account for some missing registrations, and as I’m told and wholeheartedly believe, it often does. Two coaches in Colorado conveyed to me they routinely get to summer representative play and upwards of 15-percent of the players have the receipts to show they paid Rugby Colorado, yet they don’t appear on USA Rugby’s CIPP database.
That could be for a couple of reasons. Most likely, it’s human error – either the SRO didn’t send everything in correctly, or USA Rugby didn’t process it correctly or timely. And, it could mean someone is underreporting intentionally. Either way, the coaches at the coalface see a discrepancy, and I’m not denying there may well be.
If the numbers are off because of human error, USA Rugby needs to deploy all the king’s horses and all the king’s men (and women) to reconcile the books immediately, because it’s costing them money, a resource already all-too-scarce for a national governing body currently staying afloat off a multi-million-dollar line of credit.
If SROs are underreporting their members, are they keeping money that rightfully belongs to the national office, be it intentionally or unintentionally? Presumably, yes. Either USA Rugby is getting paid for names it’s not adding to its CIPP registry and total membership tally (no altruistic motives there), or it’s neither adding those names and numbers nor getting paid.
Basic membership statistics are vital key-performance-indicators for any membership organization, and even if there’s no malfeasance or, somehow, no negative financial impact of the discrepancy between players who’ve paid dues to their SRO and those who are in USA Rugby’s membership database, it is still a significant problem that needs immediate fixing, and hopefully bringing the discrepancy to light will do some good.
It’s also worth noting that not every SRO bulk- or batch-uploads, meaning for some, registration still flows the other way, where USA Rugby collects, documents and disburses. The “clerical error” reasoning doesn’t apply to these states, nor does it apply to any conference, geographical union or other competitive body where the CIPP registration goes directly through USA Rugby.
Oklahoma, for example, doesn’t bulk upload. Those kids CIPP directly with USA Rugby, so in the state where Union’s disappearance contributed to a 14-percent decline in registered members from 2018 to 2019 across all levels, the “clerical error” reasoning doesn’t apply.
The second explanation goes like this, “the numbers are fine, but they don’t account for all of the unregistered players out there”.
Those in the database in question are the hard numbers of how many paid, registered members USA Rugby has on its books. For every number, there is a receipt of a transaction. Best I can tell, these are the only hard numbers that exist.
Admittedly, there are some teams, competitions and organizations whose players don't CIPP. All varsity NCAA women’s teams don’t. Some varsity high school programs don’t. Certain geographical areas don’t.
Ideally, someone in Lafayette would have access to the hard numbers of participants in any competition or organization that didn’t CIPP. If we had them, we could add them to the totals of CIPPed players to see how big the unregistered population is, once and for all. If those numbers exist on a spreadsheet somewhere, and I don’t believe they do, they’ve been kept under lock and key.
In Kansas, where I live, there wasn’t a single new varsity program, high school or college, that wasn’t required to CIPP in 2019. So the “yeah, but the unregistered masses” reasoning doesn’t apply. And according to the head of the SRO, any clerical discrepancies fall drastically short of accounting for the 25-percent drop in the state’s registered participation from 2018 to 2019.
In Oklahoma, there was no new varsity team, either. And since this is my backyard, I can assure you there are no rogue swaths of unregistered teams, leagues and competitions going unaccounted for.
That leaves nothing left to deduce, other than the 14-percent and 25-percent drops in registered participation in Oklahoma and Kansas, respectively, are genuine and truly reflective of how many people are actually playing rugby in those states in 2019 compared to 2018. And those numbers suggest we have more than a problem; we have an emergency.
For the nation as whole, is it entirely likely that the drop in registered participation can be, in some part, mitigated by unregistered participants or unaccounted-for registrations? Yes. I’m certain a margin of error is appropriate. However, that margin simply can't account for the entire decline, which is alarming. And in many parts of the country, like where I live, those mitigating factors simply don’t apply, so on the aggregate, we still have a very concerning membership AND participation drain.
Why the Decline?
The first question I answered myself, because, well, I had the data. For this one, I’ll defer to the dozens of good rugby people who interacted with the original numbers article in some arena, be it on social media or via direct feedback.
For argument’s sake, I’ve divided the reasoning into two baskets – societal and cultural factors, and those specific to rugby in America. Let’s start with the latter.
A subcategory should be rugby-specific societal or cultural changes. As Jon Velie said on a lost episode of the RUGBY PatCast, American rugby is the dog who caught the car. What I think he means by that is maybe best evidenced by USA Rugby, the company.
While the high-performance department is experiencing unparalleled on-the-field success via its senior national teams, the company is in shambles; surviving off a multi-million-dollar line of credit after a culling of bad-acting leaders who led the union to financial ruin, and numerous lawsuits have been filed by former partners, employees and members. Seemingly in response to the drop in dues income and the financial blunders, USA Rugby is trimming its staff and membership services.
That same dynamic, in a way, is at play in every level of the game. The standard at the top level of the senior, college, high school, and even youth level, is at an all-time high. There have never been more professional opportunities to play or coach, more scholarships on offer, or more institutional or alumni support of all kinds in American rugby. But our numbers are in sharp decline, and some think it’s due to newfound competitive disparity.
For as much good as the Lindenwoods and Lifes do to produce Eagles and pros, the 100-plus-point beatdowns they deliver create conflict, conference shake-ups, and say some, also do a considerable amount of harm. There are kids who receive significant financial aid to participate in daily training environments on the same field with kids who joined rugby for the pizza and friends, and the friction that dynamic creates isn’t always for the better. It seems entirely possible we have more serious rugby players, but at a disproportionate expense to those who are in it for the pizza and friends. For better and worse.
Rugby, long successfully sold as respite from the world of specialization, now has a burnout problem. Want to be an Eagle? After your high school season, make sure you play in an RCT. Probably best to squeeze in an EIRA tour or two, as well, over the summer. In some states you might get the fall off to go to football games on Friday nights. In others, you might be pressured to play 7s. Then the high school 15s season really starts back up again in January, now.
In colleges across most of the country, practice begins as early as class does and lasts from syllabus day to finals. You go home for the holidays, come back and are straight into the spring season. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the continued opportunity to be constantly raising money for age-grade camps and tours, which are sprinkled inconveniently in the middle of all the other rugby you have going on. And the summers are for MLR combines and summer 7s circuits.
It’s a legitimate 10-month commitment. Get through four years of that, and if you continue to be lucky, you’ll be given the opportunity to move to an MLR city to balance a minimum-wage existence as a professional-rugby-player-slash-something-else, likely struggling to pay the bills.
As rugby gets more serious, it’s shrinking in sheer numbers. There’s a strong argument to be made that’s because the social aspect of the game is a goner. The songs. The suds. The tournaments. The tours. As it became more important and prevalent to know the innerworkings of the 1-3-3-1, knowing all the lines to “Saturday’s a Rugby Day” became less critical and commonplace, and so did making the after-match social altogether or having that round of cold ones on Thursday after training.
Quite literally, the traditions of the past are being shoved further into the dark corners of our subculture, if they survive at all. And, in many cases, for good reason. Ask the University of Delaware about “I’m Schmacked” or Mary Washington about singing or Utah about drinking on road trips. The Hoosiers of Indiana in 2019 cannot have the same experience as Mark Cuban’s Mudsharks did 40 years ago on the same campus. Again, for better and worse.
Specifically, the feedback brought forward ill will toward USA Rugby for its historically wimpy value proposition for membership. In 2017, the last year for which the union’s financials are public, USA Rugby brought in more than $5 million dollars in membership dues and reported only $3.7 million in expenses toward rugby development and membership services, defined as developing and promoting the growth of the amateur level in the United States including youth, high school, college and adult club. In other words, where almost all of membership dues come from.
Conversely, it spent $4.7 million toward high performance and the national teams, which only produced $1.5 million in revenue. Those are the numbers USA Rugby reported. Given what some of USA Rugby’s internal communication said about the health of Rugby International Marketing over the same timeframe, I’m inclined to think the truth is much worse.
To put it plainly, there is a perception that USA Rugby is succeeding on the international stage competitively and floundering domestically because that’s how it spends its money. That’s where its focus lies. And the numbers support that claim.
Part of the narrative is the evolution of governance. USA Rugby was founded in 1975 when four territorial unions signed it into existence. Eventually, 30-odd local area unions fed into seven TUs, which fed into the national governing body that oversaw every level of the game in the United States. In the old days, the TU presidents made up the board of directors. Grassroots growth was at the forefront because grassroots veterans made the decisions at the highest level.
Then as the international game changed and professionalization was ushered in, national teams became legitimate business enterprises and the makeup of the board of directors changed. Gone were the lifelong, successful rugby people whose boots were stained from lining the pitch, and in came highfalutin executives with inconsequential rugby experience, or in many cases, none. Those types led the organization to financial ruin.
From about 2009-2013, any semblance of the old governance structure was scrubbed away when LAUs and TUs were done away with in favor of geographical unions. A few TUs transitioned, but high school was plucked from their purview and placed on its own via SROs. College rugby was picked out and handed to conferences.
State-based rugby organizations, college conferences and youth leagues receiving less and less support from USA Rugby's governance structure has coincided with the downturn in participation. Simultaneously, rugby’s growing tribalism resulted in splinter organizations sprouting their own splinter organizations. In some cases, those splinter organizations did much better on their own; EIRA, Rugby Oregon, PRP, NSCRO and NIRA are good examples. I fear in many more cases, though, the splinter organizations have fared worse, some of them becoming targets for wrongdoers and opportunists.
There has always been a complaint about volunteer administrators acting on behalf of their own fiefdoms, but the blowing up of the old system also blew to smithereens a sense of shared responsibility toward the good of the game-as-a-whole. Now people are often paid in some capacity to look after specific interests, whereas before, by the very nature of the governance structure, consideration for every level of the game was somewhat required, even if superficially.
That other category, non-rugby societal and cultural shifts, argue not that American rugby did something wrong, but that it hasn’t changed quickly enough with the times.
Participation in amateur sports is down in America as a whole, not just rugby. Why? Concussion data has exponentially multiplied in the last decade, and that’s certainly played a factor for a host of sports. So far, USA Rugby has played little-to-no offense, or even defense, on the matter of concussions. Grassroots people are fond of saying rugby’s safer than football, but there is no hard, trusted data to back that up. Being anecdotally safer than a sport that’s all-but-disappearing in the youth ranks is hardly good enough.
Participation in social clubs and organizations is going down everywhere. Talk to your friends in the Shriners, Moose Lodges and Scouts. You’ll find they’re all hurting, too. Why? Young people, the ones who generally play rugby, are buried in their phones.
The cynic would say that’s a knock on the younger generations. Someone more sympathetic could argue they’re tethered to those phones partially because the job market for college-educated-adults is more competitive than ever before and leaving the office no longer ends one’s work day. Either way, as marketing celebrity Seth Godin puts it, people have less free time and more options on how to spend it than at any other point in human history.
What is your club’s social media strategy? As another marketing celebrity, Gary Vaynerchuck, puts it, everyone’s a media company first.
All of those reasons were pulled from feedback and translated by me. What’s my take? All of it. I think all of it has acted as drag for growth and drivers for shrinkage. The splintering of governance has caused the all-in cost of rugby to go up somewhat alarmingly, as has the competitive landscape professionally and scholastically.
Thanks in large part to being the dog who caught the car, rugby is no longer the sport that unilaterally, as part of its cultural foundation, accepts everyone, regardless of size, skill and experience. Unconditional acceptance and meritocracy don’t usually live in the same space. It’s no longer the answer to specialization or burnout. It’s no longer the cheap ball sport. If it is indeed the safest tackle sport, we need to do a much better job of proving it.
For me, though, the biggest problem is USA Rugby’s systematic starvation of meaningful membership services from the grassroots. Too much of our CIPP dollar is going to overpaid executives. Too much of it is going to legal defense. Too much of it is going to line items and salaries that have no tangible, measurable impact on the growth of the game in this country, which is kind of the whole point.
What to do about fixing it?
Firstly, we need to recognize that it shouldn’t all be fixed. If the opportunity cost for women’s rugby becoming an NCAA championship sport, high school athletics associations adopting rugby in large numbers, a successful professional league and Olympic gold is that “Jesus Can’t Play Rugby” is only brought up in the past tense and in Missoula, Mont. once a year, I’m good with it.
But not all of those outcomes are on track. Olympic gold for both the men and women is firmly on the table, and Major League Rugby looks set for a third season. But we’re 20 years into the effort to make women’s rugby an NCAA championship sport, and we’re only halfway to the required 40 varsity programs. It’s unlikely the NCAA will give us another two decades to get there, so NIRA leadership is working with the mantra, ‘sprint to 40’. The reason the NCAA initiative isn’t further along is a very real reflection of USA Rugby’s decades-long, upside-down investment strategy. NIRA's existance is the stakeholders taking their destiny into their own hands.
We have exactly one state athletics association which has adopted rugby as varsity. One.
Costs need to come down. Before you call me a socialist, I’m not saying everything should be free. I have a hypothesis; far too many rugby organizations are sitting on far too much money in reserves and far too many people are underachieving in their paid and unpaid capacities.
Every geographical union, referee society, conference, SRO, 501c3, you-name-it in American grassroots rugby should be audited by its members. I have sat in too many annual general meetings, seen too many line items that never got spent or can’t be explained, and now I sit flummoxed.
Why does it cost $150 for a per-game referee fee, when the referee gets paid only about a third of that in some places? Why has my five-year-old GU averaged about $20,000 in excess income every year of its existence? Why do grant requests get denied when there’s ample money? Why is my GU run at the same standard now with paid staff as the LAUs and TUs were with unpaid volunteers?
This isn’t about my GU, specifically. It’s not about every GU, or any GU, necessarily. If I knew with certainty of improprieties across these organizations, the previous paragraph would have periods in it instead of question marks.
And I’m not saying these groups are all dealing from the bottom of the deck. Some of them are just run incredibly inefficiently. Every dollar they take from you in dues and don’t directly reinvest in making your experience, and the experiences of those in the same grass patches as you, tangibly better is a dollar they’ve wasted.
The all-in cost of participation rising isn’t entirely on USA Rugby. If your team raises its dues in the same season your GU raises its dues and USA Rugby raises its and the referee society raises its, well, everyone pays a bunch more. All of a sudden. With no lube. Just like USA Rugby members are getting too little return on their dollar from the national office, they’re often getting too little from their local governing body. Fix that, and we can bring the overall cost back down, or at least we can more efficiently plant seeds where USA Rugby's incompetence razes forests.
For your next AGM, don’t just send the person who draws the short straw. Don’t just send someone to fill out your schedule. Read the agenda. Be prepared. Pay attention. And most importantly, ask some tough questions.
Seasonality is the drum I won’t stop beating until we do something about it. If you’re a college coach on the west coast, you may have just thrown up in your mouth. Don’t worry, the fall 15s/spring 7s soapbox is in the shop for repairs.
“We’ve become the specialist sport that we’ve stuck our noses up at,” commented Notre Dame head coach Justin Hickey in response to the numbers article.
“’As one of my most respected team leaders (and one who took a year off due to injury and burnout) stated to me during his exit interview two years ago, ‘in order to play rugby at Notre Dame, you must identify as a rugby player for 10 months out of the year for four years.’ This from a young man who represented the USA U20s, and was a Collegiate All American, but found himself burned out. Few other sports require this of their athletes, nor would it even be allowed per NCAA/HSAA’s time limitations.”
We can argue what belongs where later, but the concept that more rugby is better is slowly killing us. We’re just a few years removed from USA Rugby’s volunteer committees mandating that clubs full of volunteers have to play a minimum number of games in order to be eligible for the postseason they fund through their own dues, using the reasoning that in order to get better, you have to play more.
Game minimums and 10-month seasons don’t do that. They demand that each person who plays rugby plays more games. I’d argue the unintended result has been far less people playing rugby. Switching to more people playing a smaller, more sustainable amount of games can just as easily lead to more and better rugby on the aggregate.
Seasonality is important not just because of burnout and barrier to recruitment and retention, though first and foremost because of burnout and barrier to recruitment and retention. It’s also important for collaboration. Literally, our problem is we are running out of arms and legs. If college played 15s in x-season and high school played in y-season, it’d make it easier for us to stretch the arms and legs we already have to better service each level of the game, all of which are instrumental to its survival.
Instead of having to coach high school and play club at the same time, my buddy could do one in the fall and the other in the spring, and he’d probably live longer and his wife would hate me less. If picking a season and running with it is too extreme for your area, at least organize the weekends. Every youth, high school, college and club game doesn’t need to be played at 1 p.m. on Saturday at its own bespoke field.
Imagine a world where all high school rugby was played on Wednesday and Friday nights, leaving club and college coaches and players available to coach, referee and spectate their games. Then the high school players and parents could come watch their coaches and referees on Saturdays or Sundays.
That’s 100-percent doable in my area. I’ve tried. But enough people decide that playing on Saturday, or Monday or Tuesday, is what’s best for their individual program, not thinking about the greater benefits for their ecosystem, so there’s often upwards of a dozen games played across as many pitches with too few referees to service them.
We also need to share resources better. Lining fields sucks. Setting up and tearing them down is always a nuisance. What if there were six games in your town on a day, and all six were played at the same venue? Shared costs, shared responsibilities, enhanced atmosphere. It’s a win for everyone. But Club A has a nicer field than Club B, which helps Club A recruit against Club B, so they won’t share. Or there’s that pesky 1 p.m. hour that seems to be so favored by so many. There’s always a reason.
The biggest fixes, though, need to come directly from the national office. The fattest salaries care almost exclusively about the high-performance teams and public perception. Making the budget 10-straight years won’t get Ross Young a dream job at the RFU, just like playing an integral role in USA Rugby’s financial ruin didn’t prevent Nigel Melville from landing his.
Public perception can be managed. Melville’s regime deployed deceptive math to earn Rookie Rugby accolades, just like World Rugby is regurgitating shoddy numbers from the current regime to purport there are a million rugby participants in America. Remember when they both tried to spin the Rugby World Cup 7s as an unmitigated success? That great triumph is the main reason RIM was started, and RIM is the reason USA Rugby is eyeballs-deep in debt to World Rugby.
As long as the money and the people who make the most of it are focused on the tip of the pyramid, grassroots will suffer. I’ve had one anonymous source very-much-in-the-know estimate that maybe less than 20 cents of every dollar we pay in CIPP fees goes directly back to membership services. If that’s right, it’s criminal.
We can resolve this a couple of different ways. Either USA Rugby can spend far less on the national teams and far more on grass roots, in which case the national teams will suffer greatly on the pitch, or USA Rugby can ween itself off the CIPP dollar.
The latter is the right answer. Charge less, but deliver far less (I know to some that seems laughable). I’d be much happier to have my players pony up the direct cost of third-party liability insurance, plus $15 that goes directly to the national teams, than the $100 or so they pay now for essentially the same ROI. The move would allow for USA Rugby to eliminate positions and overhead, clarify its mission and goals, and finally have a truthful transactional relationship with its members.
In order to do that, though, the union is going to have to make up considerable income elsewhere while simultaneously tightening the belt. That begins with getting the more than half-a-million dollars we spend annually on Young and CFO Eric Gleason to bring in some actual cash. It would require the union to keep its nose out of lawsuits. It would require us to stop overpaying executives to underdeliver, and that requires our Congress growing a spine, which requires you to pay attention at your next AGM, because that’s usually where Congress members are made.
USA Rugby also needs to earn back some trust, and that starts with earning back sovereignty. The union has been bailed out by World Rugby more than once. Last time eventually resulted in Melville’s appointment, and we saw how that turned out. I see very little reason to suggest this time will end any better, without an intervention.
When USA Rugby stops delivering the national championships and competitions they currently do to focus on the national teams, we’re going to have to work together more collaboratively. That goes back to the whole seasonality thing.
We’d also be wise to focus first on sustainable rugby instead of having every sector striving for commercial rugby. I see a solid reason for collegiate national championships to exist. They’re the front porch to our collegiate game, which alongside the national teams, is the front porch to our sport. It’s been proven broadcasters will show it and sponsors will underwrite it. Does club rugby need nattys, though?
Couldn’t we just all do what the most famous clubs in the country have done in all the “RPs”; Pacific Rugby Premiership, ARP, MRP? Find a bunch of likeminded clubs in a geographic footprint that makes sense for you. Ringfence it. Give it a fancy name, adding some pomp and circumstance, some effort on social media, and parlay that into some sponsorship and a really worthwhile, fun, sustainable amateur competition.
Don’t carve out some of the best playing months of the year in April and May for one or two teams from your league to have ample planning time between playoff rounds. Instead, play in those beautiful months (if that’s where the seasonality thing falls). Make the season no longer than 16 weeks, start to finish, preseason through postseason. Make the significant others happy. Lower the barrier to recruitment and retention.
To the credit of the current administration, leaning into beach and touch rugby is a great idea, and that effort is already underway. For clubs who find themselves stranded, be it in a crowded market, or with just not much of an appetite when it comes to 7s, touch and beach would be worth considering for your low-barrier summer engagement. While these areas are great for the overall exposure and growth of the game, they should only serve to compliment the traditional silos, not compete or replace them.
There is a big problem, but we can fix it. It won’t be easy. It’s going to require some serious administrative work, radical thinking and collaboration. But it’s doable.
Sustainable rugby requires putting the horse before the cart. For decades, we’ve worked backwards, starting the calendar with the national championship weekend, then the national playoffs, then the regional playoffs, then the regular season. The primary concern has been one game at the end of the year between two teams, instead of the weekends when there are thousands of teams playing across the country.
Flip that. Your regular season is what matters most, because it’s what the most participants experience. It has the greatest impact on the greatest number of people. Build a meaningful, appropriately-sized competition, and if there’s time leftover, then think about dessert.
Sustainable rugby is about sharing resources. We don’t have to suck everyone back into the GUs, but we need our high school organizations working hand-in-glove with the youth and college, so on and so forth. MLR and D1A’s stilly standoff over eligibility has no place in a culture built on sustainable rugby. During the governance schism of the last decade, we've swung from one end of the autonomy pendulum to the other. Time to settle somewhere sensibly in the middle.
Sustainable rugby is about fixing our governance structure. Bylaws need changed. Our Congress, as its currently constituted, does not work. It, like our perception of seasonality, was built backwards. Instead of looking around and figuring out how many engaged, intelligent, worthy rugby volunteers there were and then building a system to fit that, we built the system first and then tried to fit square pegs into rounds holes. It’d be like devising a 2-4-2 attack predicated on quick ball and sharp handling when you have a team full of tighthead props – it wouldn’t make much sense.
There are too many people on Congress and the board who are just filling chairs, not putting in an honest effort. That means there are too few people who would do the job the way its intended. Which, in turn, means there are too many chairs.
To get governance right, we need to recognize we have it wrong. Not just Congress – the whole enchilada, including the top end of the national office and the board. No one can argue we had it wrong, at least not honestly and sincerely, during the RIM era. We had it horribly wrong.
That seemed like our rock bottom. That’s how it was sold. Now we’re supposedly back on the fiscal-responsibility, accountability, transparency wagon. Problem is, we’re not. It’s a lie. The current administration does not have it under control, and they’re committing many of the same sins of opacity as their predecessors.
If the board of directors and executive team throughout the RIM fiasco were an addict, it’d be one that never really got clean in the first place. Our leadership insincerely sat through the intervention and even boarded the bus to rehab. But it skipped the outpatient therapy and started hanging out with the same old friends. We put down the crack pipe and picked up the bottle, and now we’re stumbling around hoping our on-the-field success is enough to mask how drunk we are.
Bottom line, the only way this gets fixed is if all of the sober grassroots people, upon which the union, the national team success and these great opportunities were built, stop waiting for the drunk adults to fix it.