Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Opinion: What American Rugby Needs In 2017 (Part One)

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!


  1. Very interesting!
    I don't think the local clubs have ever articulated this definition of a rugby club. I know the members *believe* that, as seen in their FB posts ("Saturday is a rugby day!").
    Where we are falling short at present is that the clubs are running on a shoestring, on volunteer services, just to support their primary sides.
    How many clubs have old boys competitions? If you have youth programs, do you have adult programs as well?
    Plenty of food for thought.
    Thanks, Tim, for articulating this.
    Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Absolutely! MMA gyms are full of guys and girls paying good money to punch each other and grapple. Parents will pay 100s of dollars for kids to participate in ORGANIZED, POLISHED, WELL SUPERVISED SPORTS PROGRAMS. Why rugby is still bottom feeding is puzzling, but I propose it is a symptom of Rugby undermarkets, and ultimately devalues the entire product. My opinion.

    1. It's because most people don't know how to run a business, let alone a non-profit entity with no revenue source outside of dues. Most clubs are too worried about today to invest in their future and actually build a club structure. It takes work and it's hard to commit even more time to a volunteer sport than players already do just to train and play.

  3. Although I agree with Tim in the fact that Amateurism brings real sports to life throughout volunteers’ passionate help, effort and support; I'm not entirely sure it is more important or needed than professionalism.
    I think it's not a matter of which is more important. I think they both need each other. Development and growth is all about facing new challenges and learning throughout the process, as an amateur or a professional.
    Amateur Rugby needs Professional Rugby for development reasons and motivation. It is not new that humans need achievable goals to keep ourselves motivated. Simon Sinek used to talk about the purpose in human actions: the "why". Why should I wake up every day and give 110% at the gym? at practice? at a particular match? why should I give away sleep, party’s, McD's or any other treat I might enjoy? I think the chance of becoming a professional rugby player, a professional rugby coach, Trainer, manager; is what keeps the wheel moving. It's a great way to catch new people’s attention and to assess continuity (one of rugby’s very own principles)
    However, that does not mean that amateur structures must become professional. NO. Even in New Zealand, the professional structure is based on hundreds (if not thousands) of volunteers. Without amateur rugby, THERE IS a high risk of loss of passion and meaning. There is a high risk of loss of rugby.
    Only today I read an interview to Argentina's National Rugby Team Head Coach, Daniel Hourcade, and he said the principal cause for Pumas' bad campaign during 2016 was "setting results as a goal instead of game improvement". That makes a statement in the discussion about whether the amateur way is more needed over professional’s, since a professional coach recognizes the lack of amateur thinking, as a strong explanation for their bad performance this year.
    There is no country, no world, in which there can exist amateurs without the fever pitch that professionals provide. And, at the same time, such professional world can't either exist without the eager beavers of volunteers and amateur players.
    My opinion? Both structures must work together to continue on the path of growth US Rugby is going through today.

  4. I've been part of Rugby in the upper Midwest since 1988. I've played for numerous clubs in Iowa, Minnesota and Chicago. All of the clubs had plenty of community support with money and a place to play. The number 1 issue is replenishing players who leave the game due to injury, family and/or job. In Eastern Iowa there were 10 senior men's clubs in 1990, today 5. I love this article because I believe rugby success in the US does depend on senior men's club success. I don't know how but solving the turnover issue is a start.

  5. I think the community expansion and wide reaching inclusion is the major need from the amateur/club/college game. College teams having both an elite AND a social programs to raise inclusion and participation. More people that love, support, and want to be a part of the sport as well as will take the time to go watch the eagles or support a professional team. I don't think the clubs job is to call themselves high performance and seek national championships (especially at D2/D3 level). Growing Local/Regional comps should be the focus...not winning the PRP/California cup etc by bringing in the most foreigners for one season. It would be interesting if the requirement to compete in the D1 national championship a team had to have a fully built out club with two mens teams, a womens team, hs, and youth rugby. Not saying its the right answer, just an interesting idea.

  6. Is this not a question of is there a significant rugby culture in the USA to justify a thriving Pro Rugby set up? At the moment I see a one man band promoting Pro Rugby and preaching to the choir pretty much on a need to know basis on Facebook and if anybody tells me I am missing something then I rest my case..Don't get me wrong I enjoyed many of the pro games on the rugby channel and the Sunday games got onto my Outlook Calendar but information about the league was hard to get even to the faithful to the point where players have not even received the results of their scores at the combines…. Pro sport is all about "bums on seats" at home or in the stadium, attracting and keeping the faithful in the fold but someone has to pay and unless it’s a wealthy benefactor they will want a return on their investment. The fly in the ointment however is that rugby is not yet a significant point of focus in the American sporting consciousness and it's continuity is not at all suited to television advertising in the way that stop go sports such as Football and Basketball one cannot see corporations pouring money into TV commercials. The Olympics came and went, foreign coaches and players have and will continue to come and go at all levels, very few clubs have a "club house" own or lease their own fields and are the poor county cousins to soccer when it come to dealing with the local parks and rec. departments, and the list goes on.. I'm an import myself but when I hear the accents of the coaches and players, especially backs, and compare the relative numbers to the rise and fall of local clubs then one questions the methodology of growing the game to date at grass roots and national levels……You can’t push a rope……