What should American rugby do?, sometimes I am asked.
Let's define our objectives as making recreational rugby higher quality and more fun, while improving elite competition so as to lift the Eagles into World Cup quarterfinals.
The proven formula is to increase proceeds from commercial properties, particularly the national team, so as to grow overall revenue and plow more and more back into the recreational game. Accordingly, two facets of management require improvement: 1) technical development / competitions and 2) administrative / commercial.
Obviously these are enormously broad. What criteria can shape our planning? Let’s stipulate that the plan should incorporate our identity as a sporting nation. That is, if we are going to capitalize on our resources, which includes our people, let’s think and execute like Americans.
Even in the most professionalized of countries, rugby does not compare with America’s largest sports in terms of total number of athletes, depth of competitive leagues, top-level salaries, match attendance, TV exposure, and so on. If we needn’t set our sites on catching the NFL or NBA, therefore we can further reduce the scope of our search for a model.
The American college athletic system encompasses hundreds of thousand of recreational athletes (in many different sports), its elite levels each year produce hundreds of professional and Olympic competitors, and its business scale exceeds rugby’s needs. College sports are thus the ideal starting point.
Our colleges and universities have been in the sports business for more than 100 years and are world leaders in training athletes as well as commercial management. Consider that three of four members of South Africa’s Olympic champion and world-record 400 freestyle relay team came to the US to train at the University of Arizona. Or that even ‘minor’ sports such as lacrosse are sold-out, televised events. There are many such examples.
The upshot is not that rugby needs to be part of the NCAA, however. It’s that if rugby is to be domestically mainstream and internationally competitive, it should follow a ‘varsity’ model. With this worldview, we can articulate a program for exploiting the advantages we enjoy over the often smallish, typically Commonwealth counties which are rugby world powers.
More to come.