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This Monday, I had my first conversation with relatively new USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne. This is mostly a record of that conversation, though I find it difficult not to toss in a little commentary. The impression Payne made on me was of a man who is realistic and passionate, who understands where rugby in America is right now and where it might go.
The first thing I was curious about was Payne’s level of enthusiasm now that he has been in the job a few months.
“The more you get your feet under the desk and the more you get around and see all the people that care about driving our game forward around the country…you get pretty inspired about what we can achieve. It’ll take a lot of hard work, but there’s no shortage of interested and/or willing people throughout our country that want to drive rugby forward.”
When I asked if there were specific people he was thinking of, he mentioned a variety of people, within USA Rugby and also at other organizations. That variety suggests a strong awareness of the value entities other than USA Rugby have in pushing rugby in America forward.
When I asked about the new residency program for the women’s 15s team and how that is being funded, he replied simply, “They all come back under the high performance budget.” That budget falls under Alex Magleby, and it seems that Magleby continues to have a high level of trust. Payne was able to say that part of the high performance budget comes from USOC grants, World Rugby grants and “cash support through Rugby International Marketing through the fee that they pay for our licensing.”
Payne also mentioned the need to “build our philanthropic endeavors.”
“We’re setting up a 15 city tour to go deliver our three year strategic plan, and there’s been no shortage of people that are interested in hosting our Olympic fundraising dinners and strategy planning dinners. It is a chance for me to get out into the communities, to some of our stakeholders.” For Payne, “It’s all about youth rugby initiatives and Olympic fundraising initiatives.”
“We will present to the board of directors at the next board meeting at The Rugby Weekend in Chicago to then begin implementing in January 2017.”
“My responsibility is to get out and start our plan and then stoke the flames of support.”
Following up on a potential growth area for the women’s game, I asked if he will be reaching out to athletic directors about adding women’s rugby as a varsity sport.
“That will be in our strategic plan. I will have five key focal points that I am going to be championing quite a bit myself. The NCAA initiative for women and supporting the varsity and elite women’s rugby growth is going to be one of those that I will focus on specifically myself. Yes, we will be reaching out [to athletic directors].”
“We’re developing within the strategic plan some really aggressive youth—pre-high school and high school growth—for both boys and girls. That combined with the Olympic movement with the current varsity movement creates a culmination of justifying points…we can make a very strong case to universities as to why women’s varsity rugby is something that athletics departments should be looking at seriously.”
“I feel very strongly about [adding more varsity programs].” He mentioned that he is thinking not only of the athletes, but also “as a rugby enthusiast.” The support of the NCAA and the Olympics can “propel us forward.”
Looking at the schedule for the men’s 15s side, I expressed some frustration that the two matches in November in Europe still were not confirmed. He seemed genuinely surprised, that there was not an official confirmation of those matches. “Well, there should be.” Apparently, World Rugby will be releasing final details on Thursday.
What most people are expecting, Payne included, is that the men’s Eagles will play Romania in Bucharest and Tonga in Spain.
I expressed that as a fan, it is frustrating to see the Eagles play Tonga in Spain instead of America.
“I can agree with you. That’s one of the things we’ll look at going forward as we look at more scheduling opportunities….If we’re going to play fall international test matches, we’re going to have to play some obviously away. Without a doubt, we’d want to try and play a home test. My whole entire motivation for this job is driving awareness and driving participation figures up. To do that, we need to play on our soil as much as possible. If it’s not doable, and the only way we can get the test match is to play it in Spain, then that’s what we’re going to do to get the match itself. You can rest assured that we’re going to try to continue to broker and make as many matches work for us stateside as possible.”
Because increased visibility could mean increased sponsorship interest, and increased sponsorship interest could mean more money for the high performance budget, I asked if the Eagles and other national teams are hurt by playing in Europe with a relatively short amount of time between matches being confirmed and played.
“There are a multitude of reasons why matches are where they are. First and foremost, we always want to play here.” That can’t always happen, and part of what is happening is “building partnerships.”
When I spoke with outgoing CEO Nigel Melville last February, he said that part of the agreement with Ireland and New Zealand playing at Soldier Field in November was that both sides would return to play the Eagles in the next three years. Payne commented, “That’s been discussed” but there is nothing firm. “If those teams can come here and grow their brand and get a commercial gain out of it, it’s a win-win. We get Tier 1 rugby in our country. Selling out Soldier Field without an American team playing could cause other unions to think coming to America is a commercially viable opportunity.” Additionally, “It allows us to market the game on the elite platform.”
Looking beyond November, I asked about the likelihood of a title sponsor for the Americas Rugby Championship. This is something being “Currently worked through at the moment.” I replied to Payne that his response suggested real cause for optimism. He said that getting such a sponsorship is “One of RIM’s primary responsibilities and they are working very hard toward that.”
In terms of growing the ARC, one potential problem is that the Eagles, and likely other nations involved, will not have full access to all of their European professionals for the entire tournament. This means that the rugby on show is likely to be less-than the best the nations have to offer.
I asked Payne about whether he thinks this is a problem and whether or not USA Rugby is lobbying World Rugby to change Regulation Nine, which outlines when players can be released from clubs for national sides.
“That’s something that Alex [Magleby] and [Coach John] Mitchell and myself have already been in discussions about. We’re not going to be able to get Regulation Nine changed. A lot of [Eagles playing professionally in Europe] were signed because [the clubs] needed cover for their own internationals. We don’t want to damage that opportunity for our future players. At the same time, we don’t want to force the hand of the clubs either and demand our players because that doesn’t do anything for good will moving forward.
“One of the things” we’ve talked about “is how do we best strategize to build our calendar around that probability [of conflict between club and country]? Do we look really strongly at just asking pro teams for players in the fall or do we kind of let our guys stay over there in the fall and then demand we get them back for the ARC? So we provide [to the clubs] the cover that’s needed in the fall, but then we really push to try and get our best squad back in the winter or spring so that we can build the game here. We have to have our best product available when we play domestically.”
If players are available for the ARC, “It’s then a closer blend in to the summer tests.”
In terms of balancing having players available while still wanting the best chance for players to be signed overseas, “Some areas we’ll have to give a little. Some areas we’ll have to fight to be a little stronger to make our plan work.”
“One of the things that Mitchell is very good at is building relationships within the pro clubs abroad. He’s a well-respected coach. He’s got a good network. He understands the pressures on the players and the front offices of those organizations. He’s got a great demeanor with building expectations and how can we partner with those teams and our players to [get] the best solutions.”
I mentioned specifically Aj MacGinty and the likelihood he will stay with Sale during the ARC. Payne pointed out, “Some of the ARC matches are great for people working to push MacGinty. You want them to get those matches.”
Regarding foreign leagues looking to establish teams in America, “That’s something that is quite a bit down the line.” Payne is focused on “Trying to develop our domestic markets. When we talk about growing the game, we’re talking about, in essence, developing markets.”
An approach that puts improving what is already happening in America rather than trying to import a shortcut seems pretty sound to me.
At the end of our conversation, Payne and I had a quick exchange about youth rugby. I shared the positive experiences my kids have had playing flag rugby with the Narberth Rugby Club and how great it is to see so many kids under 11 running around, having fun, playing rugby. Payne mentioned that pictures of smiling kids playing rugby were exactly the kind of thing that gets him motivated on a tough day.
It is still the infancy of Payne’s tenure, but having a CEO who is emotionally invested in rugby in America the way that Payne seems to be strikes me as a significant positive.