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The future of the American game hangs in the balance as major changes are in the works at USA Rugby. Within months, USA Rugby will have a new CEO, as will its commercial subsidiary Rugby International Marketing, and there will be at least one new USA Rugby board member, as well as a new chairman. And a new strategic plan is being crafted in the meantime.
That’s an incredible amount of change happening all at once, especially for an organization with a lame duck leader. In March, it was announced Melville would be leaving the national office to become the CEO of RIM, but given his tenure on the job and the fact that USA Rugby owns 90-percent of RIM and the two entities share three board members, Melville was still going to be intimately involved, as he was in the early search process for his replacement.
Then came the bombshell announcement April 29th that Melville would be leaving USA Rugby altogether to take up a role at the RFU. That decision came as a surprise to not just the rugby public, but those within the USA Rugby inner circles, too. Though Melville will stick around through June, USA Rugby has hired Korn Ferry, an advisory firm, to help execute the final stages of the CEO search. The application window for USA Rugby’s chief executive position closed April 16th, and now the interview process begins, with Korn Ferry leading the way.
While USA Rugby touts over 150 applicants for its CEO position, a couple of Americans in consideration are Nathan Bombrys and Chris Draper. Bombrys, a Michigan native who picked up rugby at Syracuse, is currently the managing director of the Glasgow Warriors. He’s spent years in top-level professional rugby in Europe, working previously with the Sale Sharks and Scottish Rugby Union.
Draper might be a more familiar name. He was a national champion at Cal and USA’s preeminent international referee until settling in his native Iowa to work with a number of business ventures, including a startup incubator that works with Iowa colleges. He also serves as the state administrator and director of development for the Iowa Youth Rugby Association, which has ballooned from a couple of dozen participants to over a thousand in a few short years.
During the CEO search, USA Rugby has simultaneously been trying to seat two vacancies on its board, the body that will actually hire the new chief executive. The application process was opened in January, interviews are being conducted, and the empty seats will be filled in September. Current chairman Bob Latham is timing out, and Will Chang is up for re-election. Many expect Chang, the architect of RIM, to reclaim a seat, and some think he’ll fill Latham’s shoes as chair.
Tony Ridnell, the former Eagle No. 8 who has been vocal the last several months about changes he'd like to see made via social media and his own blog, is among those being considered for the other vacant board seat.
The expectation is for the current board, including Latham and Chang, to hire the USA Rugby CEO. However, if the process drags past September, the newly elected board member, or members, would potentially be involved.
Then there’s the RIM CEO position, which only just came open with the announcement of Melville’s exit. It would make sense for this hire to come after the naming of USA Rugby’s new leader and the seating of its board, but the hire technically falls at the feet of RIM’s board, which is made up of Chad Keck, Peter Seccia and Brian McClenahan, all of whom also serve on USA Rugby’s board. The RFU, a 10-percent owner of RIM, also has a board seat. Originally it was Sophie Goldschmidt, but she has left her post as English rugby’s chief commercial officer.
This is not a good time for RIM to be in a state of flux, considering its recent launch of therugbychannel.tv. Since getting started, the over-the-top site has struggled to provide new content, only occasionally airing Pro 12 games live. Word is the channel is struggling to acquire the rights to compelling rugby content. It has a one-year deal to air the 2017 Six Nations, and it was recently announced as the carrier for Team USA’s June summer series. Domestic college championships are also being shown via the site. But those seasonal competitions will struggle to carry the subscription service alone.
Then there’s the business of a new strategic plan, something which USA Rugby hasn’t produced since 2009. The governing body has hired the Top-Quartile Performance Institute, led by long-time rugby player and coach George Henderson, to make it happen. It’s working with a committee, which includes James Madison coach and former Cal player Mark Lambourne.
Strategic plans are core documents utilized by many rugby unions to charter the course for the forseeable future. The Australian Rugby Union released its new five-year plan last month, and it included input and feedback from every member union and over 8,000 sponsors, fans and members of the Rugby Union Players Association. So the strategic plan is a big undertaking in its own right, and surely the new USA Rugby CEO will be influential in helping set the framework for the future.
These governmental changes are accompanied by some exciting emergences in the American game. Professional rugby is here, as PRO Rugby is in its pilot season of paying players significant wages and drawing thousands of fans to games, with matches available live for free to millions.
Rugby returns to the Olympics this summer for the first time in 92 years, with the men’s and women’s Eagles set to compete. Those players contracted to the Olympic teams were really the first professional players in the USA, and now some of them are inking endorsement and sponsorship deals with well known brands like Red Bull, Nike and Budweiser.
Penn Mutual has emerged as the largest independent sponsor in American rugby history, inking never-before-seen-in-rugby deals to title-sponsor the Collegiate Rugby Championship and Varsity Cup, as well as working with groups like the National Small College Rugby Organization and partnering with individual players like Madison Hughes and Kristen Thomas of the men's and women's 7s teams.
We’re likely going to see the second sellout of an NFL stadium for an international rugby match when Ireland meets New Zealand in Chicago in November. And, months after the Aviva Premiership played its first-ever regular season game off English soil in New Jersey, a landmark television deal will see one Premiership match a week nationally televised weekly starting in the fall.
These are big, important moments for the game of rugby in the United States, and over the next several weeks and months, impactful decisions will be made to hire those who’ll lead USA Rugby through them and beyond.