Wednesday, November 19, 2014

American Rugby Must Keep Momentum Going

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No matter how you cut it the Eagles did well in terms of television ratings for the Eagles-All Blacks match. The official numbers are in and 927,000 thousand people tuned in to watch the match live. Given that many in the rugby community were a part of the 60,000 plus in attendance and the match was going up against college football those are great numbers. In comparison, the Las Vegas 7s drew in slightly more than that put didn't have college football to contend with or had as large of a crowd. Both events have been solid. While the numbers from the match may not equal any of the other major sports they do come close or better than what the Major League Soccer final receives every year.

All told, the match has the markings to be a turning point for American rugby. However, and this is a big however, it will only happen if decision makers continue to make smart decisions. The best example of this is the current November tour where none of the three matches in Europe were/will be shown on television in the United States. Instead, fans had to specifically no where to look. For a fan just getting into rugby and wanting to watch more the likelihood of them going to some Romanian website to watch the Eagles play is remote. It was a huge opportunity missed to build on momentum.

Take the jump to read more.
The same goes for 7s coverage. The Las Vegas 7s gathers plenty of attention and is shown on television but the best fans are going to get for the rest of the stops on the Series is the two hour show late at night on Universal Sports that only shows the final four matches. So unless the Eagles make a final they aren't on television. Improvements have been made to allow U.S. fans to watch online on Universal Sports, but again, like the Eagles current tour or Europe you have to know where to look so only the diehards tune in. Whether it's an Eagles specific highlight show every week during when the Eagles play or something else fans that may have been looking for rugby after Chicago are basically lost.

It's not just a matter of getting more rugby on television either, it's about getting it on the right channel. NBC has been a solid partner for both the All Blacks match and the Las Vegas 7s. Yes, they can sometimes focus on hokey things but that's apparently what draws people in. However, other than that the only match to appear on NBC Sports Network was last year's Varsity Cup final. Even the Scotland-Eagles match was shown on Universal Sports. Not many people have Universal Sports. Arguably even Fox Soccer Plus or BeIn Sports would be more of a natural fit for rugby than Universal Sports.

The U.S. also needs to focus on more than television. As we've written about before, the days of getting 20,000 for a Tier I match and then only 5,000 or 7,000 for their next matches is not cutting it. The Eagles need to at least get over the 10,000 mark for all of their matches. It's doable and U.S.A. Rugby has shown they are on the right path by partnering with marketing companies for matches. They need more of that.

Lastly, whether or not the players on the team make their paycheck playing rugby, as Eagles they are professional and should be treated as such. We've talked with the Eagles, we know their stories. Many of those stories were amplified in the lead up to the All Blacks match but we need to have more of that on a regular basis, otherwise, the Eagles risk being put into the category of Olympic athletes that are only remembered once every four years rather than athletes from major sports in the U.S. that are constantly in the news.

The good news is that there is plenty of room to grow and build a large fan base. The All Blacks match was great for building excitement in the rugby community and bringing new fans. However, it can't simply be a celebration of American rugby. The 927,000 number won't mean much unless it's followed up on a consistent basis. Here's hoping that happens.


  1. While I largely agree with what you wrote, it seems you politely circumvented the most obvious way to improve a rugby fan base: winning. Americans love winners. We love our underdogs! We expect them to break through seemingly impossible barriers to come out on top. Is that unreasonable? No, the fact that we have an independent Nation proves it is possible. Winning, is a cultural imperative. If the Eagles started consistently winning the fans and media would break down the door trying to get a piece. It’s just the way it is, and I hope it never changes….
    This may sound like a track on repeat, but what the 15’s Eagle team needs is a drastic reboot: new coach, new players, etc. I may be wrong, but the Eagle sevens team seems to be proof that this tactic has merit. Further, there are players that the organization seems to refuse to let go, despite their consistent lack-luster performances…. If the current arrangement of coach/players didn’t produce in the last World Cup, what makes the administration think that they’ll miraculously rise to the occasion of the eminent forthcoming World Cup!? The All Blacks produce great rugby. There is a very good reasons why despite the youth rugby, financial/national backing etc. They produce great rugby because they aren’t afraid to cut a coach or a player that is not producing. It’s a merit-based honor. If the coaches/players aren’t representing the Country well, then they tirelessly search for persons that will. If we are not willing and determined to do the same, then nothing will change. I know this will most-likely never happen, but I would like to see how teams like BYU, or Cal would fare against the Eagles. I have a suspicion that the result would be a shocking revelation. Both BYU and Cal have players that are much better than many of Eagles currently on the roster.
    Anyway, the point is, the only way to generate a solid fan base and media support is to provide better rugby. I know that many will say it’s a chicken/egg argument, but it’s not. We have the talent, we have the potential, and we have fans and media anxiously waiting. We just need something worth paying attention to, some promising rugby to rally around. It’s just not happening. It’s the same old story year after year…. We need a paradigm shift in U.S.A. rugby. Each loss needs to be viewed as a wakeup call. It all comes down to expectations: if the present coach/players aren’t productive, then they should expect to be let go. U.S.A. rugby needs get rid of some of the old dead weight and try something new. If they do and the Eagles start winning the fans and media will follow. If you build it they will come.

    1. Jeremy, We've been talking about the Eagles need for more Ws than Ls to drive popularity for years now and we only get grief because the "win column isn't the only thing that is important" hacks have a voice that is too loud and too unaware of what the American sports fan wants (to watch winners). Thank you for sounding that clarion.

      I don't usually disagree with my managing editor, but I do not accept that the "hokey things" that NBC does during rugby broadcasts actually draws the viewership. The rugby draws the viewers, not the hokey. However, we have no proof of either at the moment, so this is a matter of perspective.

      Curtis is right on the money about the average attendance. USAR should be pushing for a 5-figure average attendance to EVERY home Test match (mens and womens XVs). Part of that will occur through marketing, the other part of that will come through marketing WINNERS.

      I've talked about what is required to create Eagles that win more consistently than they lose on numerous occasions.

      1. A professional rugby competition
      2. 5-6mm 6-13yo American kids playing rugby each year.
      3. High-quality technical and strategic coaching in all of our division 1 competitions - men's & women's, club & college.
      4. The USAR NT programs must be run under a DoR who instills a Performance Culture that is practiced by each coach and every eligible athlete striving for the Eagles player pool.

      I don't include the marketing in this list because I think producing a winning team is a marketing tool in an of itself and I think a professional league will bring plenty of marketing by itself, as well. However, no one of these items is the cure, ALL of them must happen together. Part of our problem is we think it is too daunting a task. It is not. The American rugby community just do not currently have the organizations working together or a leader with a vision to drive the process.

      That and too many folks are constantly worried about how these steps will negatively effect their club fiefdoms in stead of focusing on how such steps will benefit their clubs and American rugby as a whole.

  2. A lot of ground to cover here. With regards to the Eagles vs Cal or BYU ... if you go back in time the Eagles in the 1980's were largely Cal players playing for Old Blues (Berkley). I believe if you look at the 1987 WC roster the majority of players were Cal products. The results of these teams were not really better than the present day Eagles. One can argue about whether this player or that deserves to be on the Eagles but at the end of the day there are not 1, 2, 3 or more players that are not getting selected who would bring the Eagles to the next level. It is naive to think that Eagle success is being hampered by poor selection decisions.

    We don't need a national team that is 90% Cal / BYU; what we need are 40 collegiate programs like Cal and BYU so that lots of players are getting a high degree of development and competition. Cal and BYU and a very few others have set a high bar for sure but if they exist in a vacuum then it's not going to help the game in the long run. We need 10 guys of Blaine Sculley's skill level fighting for a spot on the Eagles or available to play professionally. We need props that play against elite competition 20 or more times a year. Get a significant number of programs with a varsity sport approach and you will see much better players coming out of the college ranks to support a professional league and the national team. And I believe that means offering scholarships - so alumni are going to have to be tapped into in order to set up scholarship programs.

    I don't see a professional league starting within the next ten years if it is going to follow the typical model. Some creative thinking is going to have to go into this. I think a pro league could start sooner than that if World Rugby were to help finance it and use such a league as a developmental platform for many two tier nations. In other words a league that consists of not only US players but also players from Canada, Uruguay, Tonga, Georgia etc ... along with a handful of older established internationals to help raise the standard and profile. Going it alone the US (even with a team or two in Canada) there is not the player base or financial ability to make it work. So perhaps an international developmental league based out of the US and supported by World Rugby among others would work. This makes some sense because World Rugby wants to raise the profile of the game. Bringing the best of the Tier 2 nations into a pro league in the US would certainly help. This, by the way, could also be a league from which professional teams throughout the world could draft from ... offering even more opportunities for investment.

    Grant is 100 % correct regarding the youth aspect of the game - the game needs kids playing and lots of them. Any sport sees a significant drop off from the youth to the middle school to the HS level and on into college. So you need lots of young ones playing in order to keep the older age groups fed with players.

    With regards to TV I am extremely disappointed in the World Cup package that is being offered. It is very weak to say the least. Only two games on national TV and I think another eight on Universal with the rest being available on line (subscription based?). It is a very poor offering and US Rugby should work with NBC to get at least the other semi final on national TV and another half dozen or more matches on Universal.

    The All Black visit was great and hopefully we will see more like it - that is another piece to the puzzle. Can you imagine an Ireland vs England Five Nations match here in the US. It would sell out in no time, be great to see on TV and further advance the game - we really need to see one or more of these games a year here in the US; not unlike what the NFL is doing at Wembley every year (and the NFL will likely have a team in the UK by 2020 or earlier btw).

  3. Rugby on TV in the US is a mess. Soccer coverage is vastly improved while rugby has gone nowhere. If World Rugby (aka IRB), Premiership, and Super XV are really interested in generating revenue from the largest TV market in the world, they need to better understand how bad rugby looks on TV in the US and take steps to improve the presentation of rugby. These groups are already paying to produce the content and all the players and teams are already paid for in sustainable rugby competitions. It is much cheaper to improve rugby on TV than it is to launch a single pro team or a pro league in the US. The foreign pro leauges should think about paying NBC, Fox Sports, and ESPSN to show their content in a format that is more professional, consistent, and broadly accessible and share in in the ad revenue on the back-end. Rugby tutorials and stats can be presented on the second screen online and social media can be leveraged to develop brands and player identities. The current approach of selling TV rights and walking away is not growing the game in the US. Every weekend that passes is another lost opportunity to show rugby to a new fan.

    If rugby in established on TV, it will be easier for professional leagues to sell merchandise in the US and draw large audiences when their team play matches in the US. All of this will make it easier to establish professional teams in the US as a member of a foreign league of a new domestic professional competition.

  4. Another area that needs to be addressed in the elite player pipeline. Strong programs like Cal, BYU, and Life can not produce enough elite players for the Eagles player pool. The growth of youth rugby has been tremendous and the US is fairly competitive internationally through U-18. As players in England and New Zealand head off to professionally administered academies in their late teens, few of our elite players move into an equivalent high performance environment. In their late teens and early 20s American rugby players with international potential fail to develop into elite rugby players or drop rugby all together. It is highly unlikely that Men's rugby will achieve NCAA recognition given Title IX constraints and the fact that an NCAA football team carries 100 men on their roster, crowding out other men's sports. College rugby players with elite potential need an environment were they can train and compete year-round at an elite level. It is very difficult to create a high performance environment as an underfunded club sport. Elite college players should be permitted to train with top senior clubs in their area and should be allowed to play games at the college and senior level. Regional academies organized by the college conferences and supported by senior clubs could also offer year round training for all-conference athletes and provide access to the best coaching and training resources within each region and bring in outside coaching resources for quarterly assemblies. This can be funded and administered by the colleges and senior clubs if they can work together.

  5. Academies are one approach but I still see the best option in college rugby. The teams do not have to be varsity - this they dodge the title IX issue. Cal was dropped as a varsity sport because of Title IX. That does not mean that a varsity type approach cannot be utilized.

    As I said above - if you have 40 university / college programs that take the game seriously that will boost the overall quality of the game because it will breed competition and opportunities for our young players in high school to have a place to go.

    I believe that alumni at the big universities would be happy to pony up to develop scholarship endowments for instance. There are a lot of successful rugby players out there that would be much happier to see their money invested back in their schools than into some pro team that has no chance of surviving.

    Div 1 college football programs are basically academies for the NFL. Rugby can mimic this. No need to re-invent the wheel. BUT it will take more than just a small handful of universities to make it work. The framework is already there - it's time to build the structure around it now. A professional league is years away but getting say 20 elite college programs could take shape in 5 years ... and then grow from there. I think 40 elite teams would be about right but half that to start would still mean 500 - 600 athletes being trained in a performance driven environment.

  6. I agree that the colleges are effectively academies for the NFL. About 2% of college football players are drafted from high performance programs that the NFL does not pay for. I also agree that we need at least 40 institutions to produce elite talent. These could be programs like Cal, other colleges with great alumni willing to roll up their sleeves, and academies funded form conference/GU fees and sponsors.