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USA Rugby’s membership is in sharp decline. With a little over two months left in the national governing body’s year, which runs September through August, USA Rugby is on pace to have its lowest member total since 2011, according to a database USA Rugby shared with its congress.
The bleed has come exclusively in the last two years, with the organization set to lose 14,000 members since 2017, when it hit an all-time high of 118,000 unique registrants. Every membership category is on pace to shrink this year, except youth (middle school), which is trending toward a three-percent increase.
High school, college and senior registration will drop for the fourth-, third-, and second-straight years, respectively. Scholastic rugby has taken the biggest hit. There are fewer registered high school and college players now than there were in 2010.
For years, growth in the senior, youth and rookie rugby categories covered up for the drain in high school and college, but now they’re wobbly, too. Even youth shrank from 2017 to 2018.
The exact catalyst isn’t obvious. The uptick in professional and truly varsity rugby, the kind sanctioned by the NCAA and state athletics organizations, is a possible contributor, albeit a small one, as those players aren’t required to register with USA Rugby.
Massachusetts was the first state to have its official high school athletics association envelope rugby, but the MIAA launched in just 2017. The Massachussetts Youth Rugby Organization, MIAA's predecessor and the home for non-varsity high school rugby in the state, actually shrunk by 11-percent from 2015 to 2016, the year before MIAA launched. In MIAA's inaugural year, MYRO grew by five-percent. Now, MIAA's team count is up and MYRO's down.
The National Intercollegiate Rugby Association, the home to all NCAA programs, boasts about 400 players. Major League Rugby has about as many, but a significant chunk of the league is made up of foreigners who were never on USA Rugby’s membership scroll to begin with.
Any MLR, NCAA or varsity high school player who participates in summer 7s, national team, age-grade or all-star play eventually registers. And in some states, like Indiana, a high school player who participates in fall 7s and spring 15s is required to CIPP twice in the same competitive cycle. There’s also an entirely new category, touch, adding never-before-seen members, mitigating the attrition.
The trend is not only troubling for an organization full of people fond of touting rugby as the fastest growing sport in America, but because it has dire financial implications for a membership organization which relies on dues for nearly half of its income. In 2017, the last year for which USA Rugby has publicly posted financials, membership dues accounted for 47-percent of all revenue.
In real dollars, the culling has cost the union in the neighborhood of $600,000 over the last four years. That’s not factoring what the income would have been if rugby were indeed the fastest growing sport in America, but rather what it would have been without any category decreasing from 2016 on.
The drain isn’t just on players, either. Referees are down 13-percent this year, coaches are down 10-percent, and admins are down three-percent.
The epidemic isn’t quarantined to any one region, though Utah is up 20-percent this season. USA Rugby lost 30-percent of its Utah members from 2017 to 2018, so the Bee Hive State is still down on the aggregate. North Dakota had 87 registered members in 2018, and so far in 2019 it has 87. One more would constitute growth. Arizona may well get in the black by the end of August, too.
However, every other state has shrunk in membership, and 17 have lost at least 20-percent of their members in the last year: Arkansas (25%), Alabama (27%), Alaska (38%), Colorado (27%), Idaho (38%), Indiana (30%), Kansas (24%), Massachusetts (22%), Maryland (25%), Maine (23%), Michigan (22%), Minnesota (30%), Montana (26%), Nebraska (34%), New Jersey (30%), New Mexico (42%) and Wyoming (58%).
Colorado, where USA Rugby has long been headquartered, is down a staggering 43-percent from 2017. California, considered the nation’s hotbed for the sport, is even down 10-percent this year. Rising cost is a potential catalyst, as Rugby Colorado, for example, has raised its dues four times in five years. Combined with USA Rugby’s 2017 dues raise, Colorado high school participants now have to pay 66-percent more than they did in 2014.
USA Rugby’s national office is months into a restructure, which has seen the org chart all but scrapped and reimagined. The roles specifically designed to manage the sectors of the game that are shrinking have been casualties.
In 2017, at the height of membership, USA Rugby had three employees in its youth department. Now it has two, generously including Kurt Weaver, now VP of rugby operations. The membership department has shrunk from three to two, the referee department from two to one, the college and club departments have been eliminated altogether, and training and education is down from three employees to two.
All of those departments and the roles within them were part of USA Rugby’s value proposition to its members. In the last three years, USA Rugby’s dues have gone up, membership down, and the departments and roles designed to deliver value back to members have been slashed.