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On Saturday night, when The Rugby Channel’s feed cut out with the USA Eagles down by one point to Italy with less than 10 minutes to play, there was so much steam coming out of my ears that it condensed into a little cloud above me and then rained on me.
Were this a problem watching one match, it would be easy to be outraged for a moment and then move on. This is about more than one match, though. This is about the relative ease (or difficulty) of being a rugby fan in America.
Earlier this spring, while visiting my mother in South Carolina, the family headed out to lunch. As we waited near the hostess area to see if there was a table for us, a man walked up to me and, without any sort of preamble or introduction, asked, “Prop or lock?” Momentarily taken aback, it took me a second before I answered, “Hooker, mostly.” We both smiled, exchanged a few more pleasantries, and off he went.
This encounter was both terrible and typical. I was out and about with a USA Rugby shirt on—not unusual for me—and someone asked me if I play or used to play. That’s the typical part. The first thing that was terrible about this encounter was that the question wasn’t, “Back row or center?” There was a time when I fielded that question. Those were good days for my belts.
When I am wearing my USA Rugby shirts or my Bath windbreaker, people talk to me about rugby. That’s good. I like talking about rugby. The assumption that I seem to always encounter is that I wear this stuff because I played. That’s terrible.
When I see someone near me wearing a Phillies shirt or jacket, my first thought is not, “Oh. That person must have played baseball.” My thought is, “There is a Phillies fan.” Rugby remains, to most people in America, something that people do but not something people are fans of.
For me, one good sign of rugby’s growth in America will be when people consider my rugby gear as a statement of a fan and not as a statement of a former player.
Yes, rugby is a sport growing in America. For sure. And for sure that’s a good thing, but simply having more kids playing is not going to move the Eagles forward. In my experience, most rugby players see being a rugby fan as a different identity from being a player. That’s fine, but we need to understand that not all players will suddenly become fans. And not all fans will be former players. Playing rugby is a great way to fall in love with the game, but it can’t be the only way.
In order for the USA national teams to improve, they need funding. One way to get more funding is through sponsors. The bigger the audience for rugby in America, the more sponsors will be interested. Does The Rugby Channel make it easier to be a rugby fan in America? So far, no. The struggles of The Rugby Channel are hurting the national teams.
Until The Rugby Channel improves, I am not going to encourage people I know who aren’t serious rugby fans already to watch the Eagles. That is a shame. Previously, I absolutely mentioned matches being shown on ESPN3. And I have no hesitation in mentioning PRO Rugby matches on YouTube. I want there to be more rugby fans in America. But I don’t want a fledgling fan to associate the frustrating experience of The Rugby Channel with the Eagles.
My experiences with the site have engendered frustration more often than not. The poor stream during the Eagles match was not a surprise. Trying to watch Canada v Japan the prior weekend was also a struggle. However, The Rugby Channel was created as part of an entity designed to promote USA Rugby. Putting a barrier between new fans and the Eagles (subscription) and then enraging existing fans is not promoting rugby.
In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s poor service, there was not a peep from The Rugby Channel. All seemed to be well, as far as the people behind the channel were concerned. When I sent a customer service request Sunday afternoon pointing out that not only had I not been able to watch the match in full on Saturday, but also that the match was not yet archived, my “ticket” was marked as Low Priority. Ouch.
A website doing the thing it was designed to do is Low Priority?
It isn’t clear to me why the Men’s and Women’s Eagles matches this summer were put behind a pay wall. I asked USA Rugby. No answer yet. I would ask RIM (Rugby International Marketing), the commercial entity that is officially behind The Rugby Channel, but it doesn’t appear that RIM has any employees yet.
I also asked about the design of the site, customer service, and why getting a reliable stream is a struggle. No answers yet, unless one counts the apology and announcement of refund that went out to all subscribers Monday night. The refund is warranted and a good sign, but it also means that even if putting the Eagles matches behind a pay wall was going to generate short-term revenue, that revenue is gone now.
There are many positive things happening for rugby in America. Some of them are connected to USA Rugby. So far, The Rugby Channel is not one of them.
The sporting landscape in America is full of events, tournaments, leagues, and teams that are easy to follow. For the rugby market to grow, following rugby needs to be an easy thing to do. The responsibility for progress is not solely USA Rugby’s. However, if USA Rugby is trying do its part through The Rugby Channel, it at least needs to work.