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The launch of Super 7s was announced two weeks ago, and this new way of packaging 7s rugby is set to make its debut in 2018. With four 12-minute quarters constituting a game, benches being extended to include 16 players, open subs being allowed during any dead ball, a two-on-one overtime “gauntlet”, and a women’s league launching right alongside the men’s competition, Super 7s stands apart from any other professional venture to date.
We sat down with David Niu, the man who’s been tasked with getting it off the ground, to peek behind the curtain. Niu has a vast sporting background, having played and coached 15s, 7s and league professionally and internationally, as well as working with AFL Global to jump start arena football in China. He hails from Australia, but moved to Philadelphia in the ‘90s and has been involved in both league and union stateside ever since, culminating in representing the USA in the 1999 World Cup.
Q: You’ve given yourself a timeline of launching in 2018 on the back of the 7s World Cup. Do you feel confident in being able to meet that timeline?
A: I’m comfortable and confident in that timeframe that we can meet all the obligations we want to in terms of coordinating the teams and developing the program, having a really good plan with venue operations, broadcast and media programs. We’re confident that’s the date for us to take off.
Q: When will we start seeing announcements on coaches and players being hired?
A: August is when we want to announce the teams’ coaching staffs. We think that’s important, that’s the first step of the process to get those guys in place and they’ll go under contract for a longer period of time than the actual players, because they’ll be involved in the team building.
I think there’s some great talent out there in our country as well, and I think this provides an opportunity and a pathway to give people the chance to work on a professional and full-time basis, even though it’s a smaller window for this first season, but that’s important to us.
Q: For the first year, you’re looking at going from the West Coast, where the World Cup is being held, to the East Coast, but you haven’t announced any markets or venues yet. What’s the thought process behind that?
A: Starting out on the West Coast really gives us that footprint where there’s been tremendous attention paid to San Francisco and the Bay Area, so we thought it would make sense to launch in and around that. Then it takes us across to the East Coast, where we’d like to work with three other coaches on the East Coast, so it gives us a large cross section of the country, but having said that there’s been a tremendous amount of interest coming from coaches around the country.
There are great facilities, the Major League Soccer venues, so it’s a goal for us to make sure it’s presented in that professional fashion, and that speaks to infrastructure. So what cities actually have that capacity and facilities is one of the things we’re looking at. And how that lines up with the demographic and the rugby audience in those areas, which we’re looking at. So, we have a good grasp on locations, and that will be announced probably behind this first news release.
Q: There are other professional rugby startups being talked about – Major League Rugby, a Pro 12 franchise, etc. Do you think there’s enough room for everyone?
A: I do. I think one of the things that we want to be able to participate in is the growth of the game. So we want to be a cooperator and supporter of whoever else is out there doing the same thing.
I commend and applaud the efforts of anyone who wants to try and work on the professional version of the game in this country to try and give athletes an opportunity. And our version of it will be Super 7s, and we look forward to rolling that out and presenting it in a very exciting way.
Q: Super 7s is the first professional venture to include a women’s component. No professional women’s league has been attempted in the USA before. Why be the first?
A: I think it’s timely. Just looking at the landscape for rugby in general here in the USA and around the world, it seems there’s quite a significant focus on the women’s game. In the Olympics I thought the medal games were fantastic. The quality was high. The USA women’s team has really been working hard and I think there are a lot of great athletes across the country in terms of the tournaments I’ve seen. Somewhere in the numbers there’s 1.5 million people who play rugby in this country, and 30-percent of those are women, so it just makes sense. And we’re happy to present a platform for the women’s game to become professional.
Q: For some rugby purists and old-timers, traditional 7s is a bridge too far from their beloved 15s. So for them, and those who are wary of change, what would you say?
A: I would say that I appreciate their opinion, and I think we’ve all got a stake in the game as fans. We like what we like, and if one person likes one version of the game as opposed to separate versions of the game, that’s fair.
I grew up in a sporting landscape where the game of cricket evolved to a five-day game to a 50 overmatch to now it’s a two-and-a-half hour game. Through that proves, I think, people, in terms of fans, had different opinions of it. And in one form or shape or another it becomes a commercial success and it becomes a spectacle the fans enjoy, and I think the process here is similar.
If there’s an opportunity to grow the game in America and make a professional footprint, then the game needs to be modified in some respects to make it a TV package and an event. I think we’ll present the game in such a way that will have exciting components and highlight the game will make fans enjoy it. And those who may not enjoy it in the first instance may over time come to appreciate it.
Q: You’ve personally been involved with many different codes of rugby, from trying to launch professional league in the USA to playing and coaching union and 7s, and you’ve worked with different sports, like recently building arena football in China. What lessons have you learned that you can apply to Super 7s?
A: It gives you sense of resilience. I’ve been a sports fan since I was fortunate enough to play at various levels in different countries. I’ve been able to take it in and really get a good perspective of it. A good example of that is I was around the Australian squad for the very first rugby union World Cup in 1987. That was an idea at the time, and was in fact played in a suburban rugby town in Sydney, and then 30 years later fast forward and it’s one of the three most watched sporting events in the world behind the Olympic Games and soccer World Cup. So I can see perspective in terms of how games can grow and change. The cricket in Australia went from the traditional format of the game to where it became this spectacle. Now you have the premier league, which is one of the sports businesses on the planet.
So I have a very good perspective in terms of seeing sports in different countries and under different conditions, China being the most recent example where I spent five years there working on [arena football] from the floor up, from no athletes into active participants into a professional league.
I was involved with the development of rugby league in the early stages of the late 90s and early 2000s, and that in and of itself was an effort based around opportunity. I thought the game at that time was quite straightforward for an American sports fan – looked a bit more like American football with six tackles like the four downs – it was a really good learning curve for me and understanding timing.
I thought there was an opportunity there, but I just didn’t understand at that time the landscape in this country and the appetite for rugby at that time, which fast forward 20 years and you’ve seen the growth of the rugby union in this country, rugby sevens in this country and around the world, so it’s about timing but it’s also about having a level of patience and persistence and being able to see things through, so this is an exciting opportunity for me.
Q: When do you see the season starting and ending?
A: I think we have to find that window where there’s the least contact sport competition. I think those months somewhere around June, July, August, I think that makes sense. After that you’ve got football. That space is traditionally more baseball. I think there’s opportunity in that time of year where people are on holiday, vacationing and school are out, so there might be an opportunity for providing a value proposition on the entertainment space for kids and families and the right time and the right market.
Q: Is there enough American talent to fill all of these rosters, or will you need to go overseas to find players?
A: I think it’s a combination of things. I think there is enough American talent. And I say that I’ve really focused on the college athlete and the most recent Collegiate Rugby Championship here in Philadelphia. Some fantastic rugby players sprinkled across 24 teams in the main bracket, 10 in the different others and all across the women’s competition as well. I think for all these sort of leagues in the startup phase it always helps to have some celebrity or some type of higher level talent that can come in and maybe you position one player on every team or maybe two players. I think that helps everybody. But I think in terms of presenting and positioning Super 7s in this marketplace, it’s going to have to be heavily American, and we can create some stars in the cities and towns that some of these kids come from. I think that’s going to be an exciting part of the program as well.
Q: So you guys have announced and are committed to the six-stop pilot series in 2018 with the hopes of launching fully the following year. What has to happen between the first and second seasons to make the league successful?
A: I think we have to do a couple of things. One is you have to pick a start date and you have to pick and end date and you have to fulfill a schedule. And you have to do it in such a way that if you want to present it as a professional league that the players are paid, that all of those commitments are taken care of, that the right commercial partnerships are formed with sponsors and key stakeholders, that a broadcast media relationship in some shape or form is coordinated, and then there has to be some type of plan for growth. Our goal is to start with the tour, our barnstorming road show across the country, and then year two look for eight locations where they’ll play a home-and-away schedule in a more traditional league format that people are familiar with. So for us that’s fairly focused goals and commitments to the program we look forward to completing.
Q: A lot has been made of the overtime “gauntlet”. Tell us what that looks like.
A: It’s everything that rugby players or coaches or people who have been in and around the game from a practice perspective know. It’s a simple two on one. It’s focused on two attacking players against one defender in a channel, and we can make that channel the halfway line and the 40 meter line and in between the 15 meter hashes so that two guys start on one end, and one guy on the other.
If they can get past the defender and score, that’s a try. It’s the other team’s turn, and if the defender stops them, game over. It’s a bit like soccer shootout, instead of having to clinically say there’s going to five kicks for this team and five kicks for that team, this may play out that only one team gets a shot and the other team gets a shot and it’s all ended quickly, or it may be that there’s two or three attempts, depending on the level of skill and the ability to keep the attacker from scoring.
These guys are going to be under some fairly heavy stress with four 12-minute periods. I don’t think there’s any need for it to be extended any further than it needs to be, and I don’t want it to be diminished in tossing a coin or let’s come up with five more minutes each way. I think that’s asking too much. I think this makes it unique and a thrilling contest. I think the fans, once they’re educated and understand what it is, can really get into it.