Navy has joined the Atlantic Coast Rugby League, replacing struggling Georgia Tech.
The change swaps the ACRL's southernmost competitor for a second Maryland school, a mild northward shift for the eight-team league. Frequently a national power, Mike Flanagan's Midshipmen will be expected to challenge two-time champion Maryland.
The high-profile move is evidence that independently run college conferences are seen as viable alternatives to USARFU's division 1A, which has been hemorrhaging teams since the end of the 2011 season. It suggests that brand, as well as geography, competition, and commerce, are important to the game's ability to project itself into the mainstream sporting environment.
Modeled on the well-known Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the ACRL offers commercial benefits which the national body has been unable to match, and has sought to make itself appealing to college sports administrators. 'As we slowly move away from rec sports to a legitimate collegiate athletic endeavor ... there are clearly advantages to playing the same teams as [the] varsity sports [do]', ACRL commissioner Pat Kane said in an interview.
As the first non-ACC institution to join the ACRL, Navy's move demonstrates the conference model is moving beyond simple replication of NCAA groupings, which themselves have been rapidly changing.
More important, Navy also becomes the first ACRL competitor to report to the parent school's athletic department. The distinction underlines that the Middies' primary responsibility is to do what's best for the school, not for a nebulously defined 'good of American rugby'.
'The conference is comprised of teams from like-minded and similarly situated academic institutions, and we are excited to begin, and in some cases rekindle, rivalries on the rugby field w these schools', longtime Navy coach Flanagan said in a prepared statement.
Meanwhile, rivals hope to learn about tapping into school athletic resources, if not actually become varsity programs, Kane said.
In addition to the Yellow Jackets, Duke and Florida State are ACC schools which do not compete in the ACRL. Despite winning just 1 game in 2 seasons, Atlanta-based Georgia Tech intends to participate in the ACRL's fall 7s series, Kane said.
The conference will stage a four-tournament circuit leading to a league championship on October 27 in Virginia Beach. As the venue is amid a hotbed of former midshipmen, Navy's participation could immediately boost attendance and thus the final's commercial value, Kane observed.
Seven-a-side teams wishing to compete for USARFU's national championship must register by tomorrow, according to the union. Players have until July 1 to declare their allegiances.