By Ted Hardy
For years, we have heard about professional 7’s coming to the United States, which has worried many aficionados of the sport. While 7’s or Olympic Rugby, as some have come to refer to it as, is an incredibly fun and enjoyable version of rugby it cannot replace Rugby Union in the eyes of many fans. Recent years have not been kind to fans, that prayed for a professional 15’s competition, as most of the rumors and speculation have revolved around the proposed Grand Prix Rugby venture and if that will eventually turn 7’s professional in America.
That tide has somewhat changed in the past year or so. Reports confirm that there is concrete interest, on many fronts, in a professional 15’s competition. To back that up, there are currently not one, but two, organizations pursuing professional 15’s here in North America. In fact, there is the possibility that there could also be a third suitor.
Many may wonder why so many?
The vision of professional rugby in North America has taken on many visages over the years and there is not a consensus opinion. Should it start as a smaller semi-professional competition, a more robust fully professional setup, or fall somewhere in the middle? What is known is that each of the two confirmed groups have different views on what the birth of professional rugby in North America should look like.
At this juncture, it is anyone’s game. Information gathered appears to suggest that USA Rugby will back the operation that is first to the finish line with investors and a product ready for the next step. The race is on.
As part of our commitment to provide all of the information possible, in the past couple of weeks I have been in contact with Jason Moore who is spearheading the American Professional Rugby Competition. The APRC is one of the two organizations pursuing the creation of professional rugby in North America.
With the help of fans who submitted questions, here is my initial Q&A session with Jason Moore. The total interview yielded far more information than one article can hold. In the coming weeks, there will be a series of separate articles focusing on specific areas of the APRC’s start up, plans, and future.
Without further delay…
Ted Hardy: Getting things started, I love the logo. It fits perfectly with the other American professional sports league logos. That said, is the American Pro Rugby Competition the official name of the operation or are there plans to change the name?
Jason Moore: Thanks for your comment on the logo. Yes, the APRC is the competition name – however – we plan to sell naming rights to the competition (i.e. “Citibank Rugby Championship” or “Budweiser Pro Rugby Cup”). But the official competition logo would need to incorporate the APRC logo.
TH: What is the commercial structure of the competition going to be like? A centrally contracted model like Major League Soccer, profit sharing like the NFL or every man for himself?
JM: The APRC head office will be responsible for running the competition administration – referee’s, schedule, finals series, overall marketing, competition related sponsorship, some of the merchandise and broadcast. The franchises will essentially operate everything themselves – marketing for their season tickets & matches, player & coaching staff recruitment & salaries, administration, team related sponsorship, etc. The franchises will therefore retain all the revenue from their home games, sponsorship, etc. Therefore, each franchise will be responsible for their financial health and on field performances.
TH: Including the initial franchise fee, how much money do you expect a franchise owner to spend in the first year of operation?
JM: The initial franchise license fee is $2.5M. We have run sample franchise budgets, as a guide, that indicate there will be up to a $7.5M further cash flow funding requirement over the first four years. For clarity, that is 2014 (pre-competition), 2015 (1st season), 2016 (2nd season), and 2017 (3rd season) – before a franchise should be running cash flow positive each year (2017 & beyond).
TH: Franchise turnover has plagued many start up professional sports in America. How many years of operational expenses will owners be required to commit to the APRC?
JM: As part of the franchise selection criteria, we will require the proposed franchise owner(s) or ownership group to show the appropriate financial capacity to fund as described above. We may in certain instances require bank guarantees or funds held in trust. We are being very clear and transparent with regards to this point.
TH: Will the competition be open to only USA and Canadian eligible players? If foreign players are allowed, how many will be allowed per team?
JM: Each franchise will have 25 full-time contracted players, which will need to fit within a $1.75M salary cap. In the first four seasons, each franchise can have up to twelve (12) imported or foreign players, with the balance (13) being US or Canadian eligible. This will reduce over time to five (5) in season seven (2021). A further five (5) minimum additional squad members are also required. These must be US/Canadian players and are paid a match fee only ($2500/game). We envisage that these players are playing for a local club side until required by the franchise. However, they would train with the franchise. We had to require this quantity of foreign players, as one of the key aspects in growing the competition is that we need to display a significantly higher standard of play in order for mainstream US to see a difference from the product currently available. Our goal is to provide a product that is slightly below Super Rugby standard in the initial years. As revenue increases, so will the player salary cap. TV broadcast rights play a major role in this as we don’t anticipate any TV broadcast revenue in the first two seasons, with only very small revenue in seasons 3 & 4.
TH: How will teams be established? Will all eligible players be treated as “Free Agents”?
JM: The APRC will identify up to 100 US and Canadian players that will be capable of playing at the required standard. We will conduct a twelve (12) week intensive training camp in 2014, prior to the franchises requiring them (players) around November/December 2014. These players will be treated as “free agents” and franchises will negotiate with them (or their managers/agents) to play for their respective franchises. The APRC will be a party to every player’s contract. In the set up phase we will also make available consultants to each franchise that will assist with foreign players and coaching staff. In reality, a franchise should appoint a head coach first, who would then put together the playing and coaching squad. Franchises can actually get player however and wherever they wish. Particularly in the initial years.
TH: Any thoughts on holding a player draft?
JM: We do have plans that there will be a player draft process in the future. However, we need to have a 12 or 14 team competition in order to make that viable.
TH: What is the target range for player salaries? Do you expect players to be able to pursue rugby full-time year round, during the APRC season, or will it be part-time professional as with Major League Lacrosse?
JM: The salary cap in place comes out to an average annual salary of $70K per player. Players will be fully professional.
TH: Escalating salaries in many pro sports leagues has led to competitive imbalance and in some cases, total ruination for leagues. Is there going to be a salary cap for APRC?
JM: The salary cap is $1.75M per team.
TH: Moving on to prospective franchises, you noted that there were approximately twenty markets in North American that could comfortably host a team. You had mentioned MLS stadiums as a benchmark of sorts in regards to playing facilities. Are there any worries that the capacity of those stadiums may be too big for a brand new competition?
JM: I believe that the reason that a pro rugby competition has not materialized in the past is that the thinking and planning has been for a too small competition model. Anything less than a 16,000 seat venue sends a lot of the wrong messages to the potential supporter base. It also has to be a venue where professional sports are played. Our target market is not just the current rugby follower and community, it is the NFL fan looking for an off-season contact sport. This is why we will run the season 1st week of March to the last week of August. Mainly to avoid the NFL season and to tap into their fan base by providing a complementary product at a very reasonable price. Our research shows that there is significant curiosity and interest within the NFL supporter market. Given the scale, we only require a very small percentage of that market to start to engage.
TH: In your interview with Peter Fagan, the subject of geography came up when referring to early spring games. The West is not as big of an issue compared to the East. A nice, tight configuration of teams in the Northeast corridor… New York, Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington would certainly cut down on travel expenses and produce some nice natural rivalries. However, those places can be miserable in the early spring, which not only hurts the product on the field, but also attendance figures. How much of that comes into play when approaching prospective franchise owners?
JM: There is a concern with weather in the first several weeks of competition. We do have several strategies, which will assist with minimizing this issue. However, it is what it is. We will ideally look for a mix of franchise locations that will allow us to schedule the initial rounds in Southern, Central, and Western locations.
TH: Has there been any franchise interest coming from the Southeast?
JM: Not as of yet, but in fairness we have not approached anyone in that region.
TH: This is a concept that has been foreign to American sports, but certainly has merit. Has there been any interest in existing pro sports teams leveraging their existing brands in the way that some European clubs have multiple sports (FC Barcelona has soccer, basketball, etc.)?
JM: Yes, we are in discussions with rugby teams and owners globally.
TH: How confident are you in achieving the October deadline in terms of sign up of the necessary ten franchises? Have you received a commitment from any owners?
JM: We are optimistic that we will get the required ten franchises, but it should be noted that there is still plenty of work to be done. We have spoken to several organizations who are owners of part-owners of NHL teams as well as some tied to the NFL and MLS.
TH: With October looming, say you ended up with eight franchises… are you able to move forward with less than ten teams?
JM: We wouldn’t move forward with eight, we’d figure out how to get the other two. We built and tested multiple permutations in regards to the number of teams and there are several reasons why we can’t move forward with less than ten teams.
TH: Are there any plans to support youth, high school, college, and even club rugby development, as those will be the fan base and players of your present and future?
JM: Yes, absolutely. The engagement of the local community of each franchise location is of paramount importance. We also want to give very clear and identifiable pathways to juniors.
TH: In closing, are there any lessons that you have learned from the failures and successes of the various soccer and lacrosse pro leagues over the years?
JM: Too many to mention. We have specifically spent a lot of time talking with people connected, past and present, with MLS and have learned a lot from their experiences… both positive and negative.
That wraps up our initial session. If this has merely whetted your appetite for more, stay tuned. The total interview covered an expansive amount of territory in depth. Additional focused articles are in the works and will cover many of these areas in detail as well as touch on some new topics.
It is very important to keep in mind that nothing is a “done deal” yet. With the October benchmark less than nine months away, the clock is ticking. The ability of the APRC to present their model and entice owners/investors will be the deciding factor. Without franchises, the APRC will not happen.
However, as fans there is no need to feel helpless. Fans can play a role. Talk about it, share it, and show your passion. If you want professional rugby to happen, let it be known. There have been many instances, in the past, of fan movements creating the momentum to bring professional franchises into their areas. We have all seen the power of social media… look no further than Carlin Isles, American rugby’s first viral video star. Fans have the power to influence far more than in which they are given credit.
Someone once told me, “most people only have two or three degrees of separation from someone that has the power and money to enact changes or influence.”
Find your people, build the momentum and let us create a wave of excitement. Perhaps a potential owners will see it and get off the fence. If the rugby community does not show excitement over the prospects of professional rugby in North America, then how can an owner expect fans from other sports to get excited?
Take it to the street.