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Details on the reasons for Cal withdrawing from D1A (the College Premier Division) will become clear as time goes on; for many the decision is the culmination of a series of disillusionments with the commercial model of the competition.
Oddly, Cal Head Coach Jack Clark has never publicly complained about the fact that the league was supposed to generate sponsorship income but didn’t. However, many other coaches have complained about that, and they were especially displeased with the fact that after all the talk and planning, teams still had to make last-minute travel plans that cost a lot of money.
Whether recent developments were pushing Cal to pull out or not, I think a major player in this decision is the Pac-12. As mapped out in Clark’s statements Friday and also in his comments the last year or so, the Pac-12 TV Network is prominent in his mind. Pac-12 TV, announced this past summer, had no initial plans to include rugby (so they said when we asked), but the door wasn’t completely shut on that, and if the conference chooses to broadcast rugby, certainly that will be more important to most of the teams within that conference than any other competition. It would mean massive exposure from a business venture that promises plenty of income – not just rugby-level income, but college sports income.
As Clark said in his comments Friday, away games were simply expenses for Cal rugby. Home games are income producers. The championship match produced income, but for USA Rugby, not the participating teams.
So if you think you can turn away from that championship and look instead at a more local competition that gets on TV regularly, and which fans will love because they care about the Pac-12, then maybe that’s what you do.
I think this move foreshadows the development of a true Pac-12 season. If that’s so, the Pac-12 has a little work to do to make the games competitive. Cal is far and away the strongest team in the league. Utah, Colorado, UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State are in the next tier, but it’s a tier that needs to get better. Then you have a tier of Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State. All solid teams, and all seemed poised for a big jump. They will need another one. Then you’ve got Oregon and Washington, who are just below the 3rd tier, and finally USC, which isn’t even close.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility for that group of teams to create a really compelling league. Really the only program that needs a major overhaul is USC. Could that be the future? The dollars behind the Pac-12 TV deal dwarf anything USA Rugby has, so yes, it could be.
Then bring 7s and the Olympics into the equation. College programs are making hard decisions all over the country on how to balance 15s and 7s, the tradition of 15s and the potential pro-Olympic boost 7s could have on college campuses.
Clark doesn’t say anything by mistake, and he specifically singled out the USA 7s Collegiate Rugby Championship as an important date on Cal Rugby’s calendar. Certainly they weren’t pleased with bowing out in the quarterfinals last June. Not playing in the playoffs well into May will put Cal in a better position to do that.
The best rugby program in the country concentrating on conference play and a private 7s invitational and eschewing USA Rugby’s national championships? It’s a bold and somewhat shocking move. I can’t imagine Cal Rugby drifts off onto the sidelines. But that doesn’t mean they can’t change the rules of the game.