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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

After Winless World Cup, Where Does USA Rugby Go from Here?


By Alexander Diegel

The USA Eagles and their fans had reason for optimism heading into the World Cup. Hoping for a championship would have been a little too optimistic, but to go 2-2 with a chance to make it out of the knockout round? With improved performances and a young roster featuring 7s stars such as Danny Barrett and Zack Test, it was a reasonable hope.

“We arrived at the RWC with high expectations of 2 wins, but at the same time, we realized that all our group were ranked ahead of us in the World rankings and it would be a tough challenge,” said USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville. “It was not out of the realm of possibility that we could win two games and lose two, just as it was a possibility that we could lose all four games.”

Unfortunately, it went the way of the four losses. True to Melville and company’s expectations, three out of the four games were winnable, as perhaps a favorable bounce of the ball here, a little more composure there, and the Eagles could have managed that 2-2 split. The results are the results, however, so where does the program go from here?

Take the jump to read more.

Cynics may attribute the youth—20 of the 31 selected players were playing in their first world cup—as a factor behind the lack of composure and execution that proved to be the determining factors in three of those losses (they were never in it after halftime against world power South Africa). However, with youth comes reason for optimism. Many of these players will still be in their physical primes come 2019, and will have four more years of experience under their belts the next time around.

The program’s arrow is pointing up, but a professional league is the true key to becoming a world power. “One of the things that we do know is that to be in the top 8 we need a fully professional team,” Melville explained. “All the teams with amateur players failed to make the top 8—Georgia, Namibia, Canada, Romania, and even some of those with fully professional teams did not make it. This has to continue to be a focus moving forward.”

But how do we get that oft-dreamed of American professional rugby league? More money would certainly help, but to get it, first there has to be more exposure. More exposure means more fans, which equals more viewers. With more viewers, the advertising companies are willing to write the big checks.

Without airtime on standard cable packages for the World Cup this time around, USA ruggers had to go to bars, deal with wonky (and probably illegal) streaming services, or buy expensive packages to watch the matches. However, help is on the way, and the signs are already pointing the right direction.

This summer, USA Rugby announced plans for the launch of a digital channel that will feature 24/7 coverage of rugby and related programming. Plans are ongoing, and it seems fans won’t have to wait too much longer to find that reliable source of American rugby coverage that they’ve all been waiting for. “Our focus now is to increase the visibility of the sport in the media,” Melville explained. “The Rugby International Marketing Board met in London last week and received a presentation of the business plan and what is possible. We are targeting a spring launch in 2016.”

Additionally, USA Rugby matches recently began streaming on ESPN’s “WatchESPN” service. As any sports fan in America knows, ESPN holds the keys for sports to gain popularity in this country. It’s not Monday Night Football, but it’s a start.

15s may very much be in the building stages as far as gaining TV exposure, but the 7s program already has a strong foothold. The CRCs—The College Rugby 7s Championships—has aired on NBC and NBC Sports the past few years. This past year, the National 7s program joined the college kids, airing routinely on the NBC channels, proving there’s an avenue for American rugby to get consistent coverage on major channels.

A big factor in gaining and maintaining that exposure has been the success of the 7s program, as the Men’s team followed up its NACRA Championship (which guaranteed its spot in the 2016 Olympics) with its first ever HSBC 7s World Series Title.

The 15s team may have disappointed fans, but the Olympics is just around the corner. If the 7s squad can play at the same level that took out a number of world powers en route to its HSBC win, momentum in the Olympics can build the sense of patriotism that surrounded the U.S. Soccer team’s run in the 2014 World Cup, which helped propel soccer’s popularity in the U.S. to another level.

With a budding 7s program, steadily-increasing exposure, and a young, progressing 15s team, there is plenty of reason for American rugby fans to be optimistic. But what’s the next step? Perhaps that American professional league ruggers have been clamoring for? Melville pointed to the National team featuring professionals as a key to World Cup success.

Before fans can dream too much about a professional league, they’ll have the Olympics to cheer on their Eagles. “We are delighted that both our men’s and women’s teams qualified and now our focus has to be on winning medals, not just playing in an Olympic Games,” Melville explained. “Our men’s team showed that they have what it takes to win a medal, we have made some changes to the women’s program to provide them with the best possible chance of doing the same. This will be a really exciting opportunity for rugby, the Eagles and the sport as a whole.”

8 comments:

  1. So basically, everything he has said in the past, and what we already know.

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  2. The quality of the broadcasting and production will be key...overall positive though.

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  3. We need to improve the club structure in the US. Teams need to get land to have their own facilities. USA Rugby would be wise to help clubs with this via land grants. Even if they just bought 1 piece of land per year to begin with, you could provide the top 10 or so club sides in the US with facilities within a decade. Not that I expect USA Rugby to due such a thing, but they should. The club I played for in South Africa had funds donated by the Western Province Rugby Union to help with building facilities on their property.

    We also need to create competition hubs. If you want to play for the Eagles, you need to play in or for one of the hub teams. We would need a hub in the Pacific NW (I would say Seattle), 2 hubs in Cali (North and South), a hub in Colorado/Utah, a hub in Texas, a hub in Atlanta, a hub in Chicago, and probably 2 hubs in the NE (New York and Boston). 8 hubs would be ideal. You create league structures within those hubs and make it known that you are unlikely to be selected for the national team unless you play in one of the hubs. The hope would be to create a strong city league in each club and then a select-side of the best players from those hubs to play against each other as well. It would take a big shift in resources from USA Rugby, the clubs, and the players.

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  4. Thank-you for writing this article. You bring up salient and thought provoking matters. I do have a question for you. You write the following:

    "The program’s arrow is pointing up"

    By now, you may be aware of my thoughts on this matter - but now that you have put it in writing - would you please provide one piece of grounding to this assessment? Are we pointing up because we have a young team? That's it? Seriously, who is saying the program is pointing up? The same people that say 'we are heading in the right direction?' Without criticizing, what direction is that exactly. Because in 16 days and over 4,000 messages/emails - I have not had one person mention to me on my blog/FB/twitter/Linked that they feel we are 'pointing up' and 'headed in the right direction'. I am open to hearing this.

    Also, this is not about the national team only, this is about women's, club, college, youth... What direction are we heading? What I see, and have now heard/witnessed first hand that we have no direction, no mission and the common denominator is that we have amazing, dedicated, focused people at the grass roots all doing their own thing (new leagues, new championships, new development programs) all because of the alienation and disenfranchisement they feel from the NGB.

    Again, I really do want to hear grounding for the statement 'the program is pointing up' unless it is just coming from a person, or people that get paid to say it, and who's jobs are on the line if it is not true, and god forbid the American rugby public actually questioned these statements.

    Thank-you again for covering our great game in this country. At least we have a vehicle for debate. But the time for debate is now over. It is time to take action. http://www.blog.ridnell.com. I am committed. Who's 'with me'?

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  5. I think there is a long way to go for Rugby in America but I agree that the signs are pointing up.

    Participation is up year on year, it is gradually gaining more exposure and traction with broadcasters. USA Rugby forming their own channel is a good move especially if they successfully get rugby fans to lobby broadcasters to have it in their area.

    There are challenges and it looks like the same old nugget which afflicts even the biggest and most well funded of Unions - that link between the the top professional tier of the game and the grass roots. Australia, England, South Africa, Wales. They all have their own crosses to bear and all have their own issues and if not addressed it can result in actual falls in grassroots participation. England and the RFU for example are facing a catastrophe, not because they crashed out of RWC 2015, but because since England crashed out interest in the RWC in England appears to have nosedived and the RFU have been quite literally AWOL for the past two and a half weeks refusing to engage with the media. So what was meant to be a "once in a lifetime" chance to galvanise the game at the grassroots level has resulted in the RFU marooning their member clubs and leaving them to get battered by the veritable tsunami of public apathy.

    So, when you compare it to others, yes the relationship between USA Rugby and its various members is fractious and the whole NRFL / USA Rugby & World Rugby fiasco earlier this year dented trust in the nation's administrators to ever get a league going but when you compare it to the shambles of other unions like the RFU of ARU then you guys are doing pretty well!

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    1. Peter, great note. Really well grounded. How about we look at it this way...:"What is OUR standard for OUR rugby in the USA". I am not interested to compare us to any other union, especially in the administration - well as long as we move this current leadership out of USAR. Regardless of all, lets agree - that must happen. Yes?

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  6. I don't understand why this article is trumpeting the youth of the U.S. team. The average age on the U.S. World Cup roster is 27. That's hardly young.

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