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The new CEO for USA Rugby is Dan Payne, someone anyone paying close attention to the search for American rugby’s top executive should be well familiar with. Payne played for the Eagles, coached the Eagles and helped build one of the top rugby programs in the country at Life University.
So he’s got the job, but what does that mean, and what are we supposed to think about the hire? I’ll throw in my two cents.
My first reaction upon hearing the news was relief. Weird, perhaps. Let me explain. There were hundreds of applicants for this job from every corner of the globe. Big wigs from top tier-one nations, World Rugby itself, and even people with really flashy resumes from sporting backgrounds outside of rugby were in the mix. I feared we may chase a big overseas name in lieu of a qualified American candidate. We didn’t. We picked Payne. Relief.
Hold on. I realize it would be easy to cherry pick a few columns of mine and label me a xenophobe. But a glance at my full body of work should prove otherwise.
However, I just think the chief executive of USA Rugby should be a native son or daughter, for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the most glaring one is America’s sheer size. As Mike Friday often reiterated when he first came on board as the head 7s coach, he was surprised by the vastness of the country and the disparity in cultures that make up the domestic rugby community.
The United States is just different in that way. With a population of roughly 320 million, America is home to about as many people as the nations in World Rugby’s current top 10 rankings, collectively. No, really. New Zealand, England, South Africa, Australia, Wales, Ireland, France, Scotland, Argentina and Fiji, combined, have roughly the same amount of people as the United States.
And the American sporting landscape is like no other. Even the All Blacks come to America, attend a run-of-the-mill regular season NBA game and marvel at the spectacle that is American sport, as they did when they played the Eagles in Chicago in 2014. So it stands to reason that it might take someone who understands the size, shape and composition of not just the American rugby community, and not just American sports, but the country itself, to best steer the growth of rugby here.
PAYNE’S RUGBY RESUME
There were other qualified American candidates in the mix, but perhaps none with as varied a list of credentials as Payne.
Firstly, he’s touched almost every part of American rugby. He got into the game at the club level and played on both coasts. He was good enough to earn a spot on the national team and played for the Eagles in the 2007 World Cup. He then became a coach at the collegiate level, leading a club program at San Diego State before starting an undergraduate varsity program at Life University. Then he coached at the international level, assisting the Eagles under Eddie O’Sullivan and Mike Tolkin. Along the way, he also worked for USA Rugby on the membership side.
So not only does he tick the box of being a product of American rugby, he has had a wide array of experiences within the community. College rugby is splintered to bits right now with multiple championships, both private and those run by USA Rugby. Payne’s led teams down both roads. College rugby is also facing an issue with the emergence of varsity programs and how they fit in with the overwhelming majority of teams, which are student-run clubs. He’s coached both rather successfully.
At the club level, Payne was a product of the old inter-territorial tournament (ITT) or national all-star championship (NASC) pathway, something many people would like to see revived. But he’s also overseen an Olympic Development Academy, a bastion of the new pathway.
At the national-team level, the Eagles have gone from a lucratively-paid, big-name foreign head coach to a lesser-paid, American skipper, and back. Payne coached with both types.
Though most of his accomplishments and experiences have been in the men’s game, Payne also oversaw and helped create an extremely successful collegiate women’s program at Life University, where there hadn’t previously been one. As athletic director at Life, he oversaw nine women’s sports. And I recently heard him hold a microphone at a seminar and discuss how the women's NCAA initiative could lead to the single biggest development in American rugby history. So he gets it.
HIS NON-RUGBY RESUME
Payne came to the game as a crossover athlete. A DI All-American wrestler at Clarion University in Pennsylvania, Payne was one of the best in the United States at another sport before playing rugby.
Ever heard of Kurt Angle or the movie Foxcatcher? Payne was Angle’s training partner as they both prepped for the Olympics. Angle went on to win Gold and become a professional wrestler and MMA fighter, while Payne just missed out on the Games. When a lot of his friends and cohorts in the wrestling community went to Foxcatcher and tried to recruit Payne, he opted for the New York Athletic Club, which incidentally led to him finding rugby. He also coached wrestling at Pitt. So he’s coached two different sports at the collegiate level, one an NCAA sport in a Power 5 conference and then of course club and varsity rugby.
In addition, Payne’s brother, Seth, spent 10 years in the NFL, playing defensive line for the Jaguars and Texans. Seth is now a sports talk radio personality in Houston. This all speaks to Payne’s understanding of the greater American sporting landscape, which as I previously stated, is something I believe to be vital for USA Rugby’s CEO.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
There’s no doubt Payne possesses the leadership, communication and management skills necessary for the job. He obviously has the experience and network with the American rugby community, and all it takes is a poke around social media reactions to his hire to see he doesn’t have many vocal detractors.
However, outside of a few months spent on Wall Street before he decided to go back to graduate school, Payne doesn’t have much experience on the commercial side of things. Running an athletic department isn’t dissimilar from running a business, but it’s not apples to apples.
That brings me to a larger point – this CEO job is not the same one Nigel Melville worked for a decade. It’s changed significantly with the creation of more jobs and the birth of Rugby International Marketing.
Melville was not just the man in charge of a national governing body that served as a membership organization to hundreds of thousands of amateur athletes and fielded multiple competitive senior national teams. He was also the high performance director and the man responsible for the commercial growth of the game, which included running events for profit, brokering other revenue streams and sponsorhips and soliciting donations from the community. He was the end-all, be-all.
As Payne takes over, there’s a guy with a lot of the experience he lacks standing in as interim CEO of RIM. Dave Sternberg was tabbed as such back in May after the announcement that Melville would forego that position to take up with the RFU. Sternberg has worked as an executive with Fox Sports, Universal Sports Network and Manchester United.
It’s still very early days for RIM, and how the subsidiary will jibe with its majority owner, USA Rugby, is yet to be determined. Technically speaking, Payne will be the CEO of the organization that owns the company Sternberg heads. So Payne isn’t Sternberg’s boss, but he’s got influence.
What we may see in this new setup is a stronger, more active board. Three of RIM’s board members also sit on USA Rugby’s board, and the fourth RIM seat belongs to the RFU – currently RIM’s sole investor.
It’s expected by some there will soon be more cross-pollination between the two boards, too, with some USA Rugby board members investing their own money in RIM. That would make sense, right, as it was USA Rugby’s board members who believed in RIM enough to sign off on its creation? When outside money comes into a company, it also stands to reason its board members are likely going to be more invested, literally, in the day-to-day decisions than those volunteering on the board of a non-profit.
Where Melville perhaps had a longer leash and more individual autonomy over USA Rugby’s direction the last decade, Payne may have less.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I liken it to the Eagles coaching job. Until Mike Friday’s tenure, the head 7s coach was far more than a coach. He was basically the CEO of the team intimately in charge of fundraising, pathway development, player tracking, coach development, etc. He had no choice but to micromanage the entire operation. Then Alex Magleby took over as the director of high performance, shouldering a significant portion of the workload. And Friday employed and empowered Chris Brown, who took a bigger chunk of responsibility than any assistant before him. That left Friday to focus a lot more on what his job title indicates he's good at – coaching.
Maybe that’s partially how this new two-entity, two-board, two-CEO setup will work.
I admitted my initial emotion after learning of Payne’s hire was relief. The second thing I felt was probably surprise, because I’d been around Payne recently and he was so passionately engaged in his job at Life. But also because of his aforementioned lack of business experience.
Was Payne the absolute best hire? Were there no more qualified Americans who could do a superior job? I honestly don’t know. I can’t say how a Bombrys or Draper or Hodges would have done, or anyone else I didn’t even know was in the race.
What I am sure of is Dan Payne possesses the necessary skillset to competently fill the role. I know he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and then to rabidly seek out the counsel of those who do. I know he’s got an insatiable competitive drive and thirst for achievement. And most importantly, I know for a fact he is as emotionally, passionately, and intimately invested in doing what’s in the best interest of American rugby as any possible hire could be. And I can’t ask for too much more than that.