By Tim Howard
Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science. He's played rugby all over the world for the past two decades and uses his body as a laboratory for our most "out there" rugby training and nutrition experiments.
American rugby. The "sleeping giant." The "great opportunity." And also, the great underdog. The game they play in heaven has so much potential in the United States; it's frightful. But it also struggles from many of the same challenges that the country faces as a whole, including massive geographic, climatic and cultural differences. And yet even with these hurdles, American rugby is on the up, with participation rates climbing steadily (if not dramatically) year over year across the nation.
2016 was an up-and-down year for Rugby in the United States. We saw the birth of the first viable pro-competition in some time. The associated enthusiasm was followed closely by the loss of a franchise before the competition even started, a mid-season stadium dispute resulting in one team relocating home games, reports of players not being paid and a series of contractual issues that seemed to last all year. Then, the Olympics! The sport's profile was immediately elevated. We were everywhere. On TV, on banners, radio interviews and in the Patriots pre-season camp. Then the disappointment of not making it out of the rounds. It was crushing. So much hope in June led to so much despair in August. Even the women's team's fantastic effort to finish 5th couldn't pull us out of the emptiness. We wanted a medal. We needed a medal.
And yet, we should think ourselves lucky. We have so much more to look forward to. This isn't the end. It's just the beginning. Here's is what I believe American rugby needs for 2017 to be a huge success:
Take the jump to read more.
To stop thinking about professionalism
Professional rugby is going to happen in the United States. But it's not something the vast majority of us should be thinking about or aiming for. Community rugby matters much more than professional rugby. There, I said it. I'm sick to death of hearing everyone talk about the next pro competition and what it means for American rugby. Just stop it. There are plenty of historical models for creating professional sports leagues in the United States and exactly none of them have come about thanks to community teams streaming their games online. Don't get me wrong; it's incredibly admirable seeing what clubs like the Huns and Glendale are trying to do. And I'm not saying these models can't succeed. What I am saying is that even if/when they do, this shouldn't be the ultimate goal for the vast majority of rugby clubs.
Community rugby clubs don't exist in some rugby-purgatory between amateur and professional sport. They exist to provide a service to their members. In this sense, the average rugby club is much more like a church than it is a sporting franchise. Rugby clubs provide their members with a place to go on Saturdays, to get fit during the week, to enjoy time with like-minded individuals and to get better at a universal skill that can greatly benefit us throughout our lives in numerous ways. Community rugby exists all over the world in this capacity. Just because there is professional rugby in New Zealand, does not mean that amateur rugby isn't important. In everything I see online, I can't understand the insane focus that the American rugby community puts on professional leagues. Perhaps it's a cultural thing. Perhaps its an inferiority complex. Perhaps the intensity of professional sport in the United States has blinded us to what matters.
Amateur rugby matters. Community rugby matters.
That fact that rugby clubs provide an inclusive, structured, high-quality and reliable product to our players and supporters matters. We do not need to be professional to have this kind of impact on our communities. In fact, adding a profit motive might achieve the exact opposite. Amateur rugby clubs need to get better at community building. We need to get better at training referees. We need to get better about supporting women's and youth programs. We need to get better at giving more to our clubs. And we need to get better at being public institutions that matter to our members.
The Mormon Church is one of the most successful community organizations in the country. As a non-religious person, I understand that mentioning this will ruffle the feathers of many. But what the Mormon Church does very very well is create and provide value for their membership. So much value, in fact, that they're more than comfortable asking members to pay the church a 10% income tax. Amateur rugby needs to do this. Before you lose your shit, no I'm not saying every club needs to 10% of a player's income taxes for dues.
Amateur rugby clubs need to strive to provide a product to their members that is WORTH 10% of that person's income. We are community organizations, NOT sports franchises. Community organizations need to provide value to members, not value to owners.
Having been around the country to dozens of rugby clubs, I whole-heartedly believe that many are already getting somewhere close to this. But I also believe that as a community, as a group of clubs, as a sport and a social institution, rugby is MASSIVELY undervaluing itself. I believe that rugby as a social institution needs to exist and that this is worth at least 10% of my income. I want to see every amateur club in the country flourish. I want to see kids growing up playing rugby and joining rugby clubs and benefiting from the same level of social support that the clubs I've played for have given me. That's what we should be striving for in American rugby. Not... "where's the next pro deal going to be based?"
The vast majority of rugby clubs are NEVER, I repeat, NEVER going to have a TV broadcast deal. The vast majority of rugby clubs are NEVER going to be able to charge $50 / ticket at their stadium entrance. The vast majority of rugby clubs are NEVER going to be able to print "AIG" on the front of their jerseys and bank a $10M check for the privilege.
And you know what? That's ok.
At some point, we're all going to have to accept this, realize that it's a benefit, not a curse and move forward with a passion for making our rugby clubs better places. This means better services for our members. More bus trips. More training options. More family days. More awards dinners. More old boys teams. More everything that makes rugby great. And the only way we can do all these things is if we all give more to our clubs. More time, more expertise, more passion, and more commitment.
Stay tuned for Part 2!