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.
This is part two of Tim Howard's op-ed. Part one can be found here.
A professional 7s competition
ProRugby has done a fantastic job. I have to commend Doug and his team for really committing to the project and making a decent go of it. Have there been issues? Sure. But for the first time, there are hundreds of young athletes walking around the streets of major cities in the United States answering the question "what do you do?" with "I play rugby son, and you can too." That is an incredible achievement in and of itself. When the ProRugby competition starts again this year, you're going to see a huge increase in professionalism and quality. Let's not discount the fact that top-level referees now have the opportunity to perform week in and week out with eyes on them from around the country, on film and with the chance to be seen by international panels. Getting good games is as important for referees as it is for players and this can only be a good thing for the local competitions that those same referees go back to. So thank you, Doug, for giving us this taste of what ProRugby might be some day and good luck to you in your quest for professional 15s rugby in America.
But on the topic of professional rugby, I do not understand why on earth we're trying to fit a round peg in a square hole. The United States is primed and ready for a professional rugby 7s league. I know a couple of franchises have tried this in the past. But if ever there was a moment for 7s, it's now. Fielding a 15s rugby squad is expensive. Let's just call a spade a spade. Even for amateur clubs with 40-50 registered unpaid players, it's not easy. Now imagine if you have to give all those guys a salary! And rent the facilities. And find trainers and all the rest of it. A professional 15s rugby competition has a huge number of hurdles to jump through to be successful.
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But does 7s have those same challenges? I don't believe it does. A pro 7s team is perhaps made up of 15 guys/girls. A pro 7s team could be run without a permanent training facility. A pro 7s team can travel more easily with perhaps 1/3 the expenses. In short, the economics of 7s rugby make much more sense in the current climate than 15s rugby. And we, as a community should embrace this. 7s is the short-term future of American rugby, and that's a very good thing.
Above all, the #1 reason America needs a professional rugby 7s competition is broadcasting. There is no model in the United States for weekly broadcasts of pro rugby games. Yes, this model is clearly very successful in markets where rugby is embedded in the culture (think the UK, Australia, South Africa, etc.) But these are places where rugby has been socially relevant for as long as some of these countries have existed. It would be an understatement to suggest that the American public doesn't have the same level of interest in rugby that they do in American Football or Basketball. At this point, right now, 15s rugby simply does not have the fan base of the big 4 North American sports. I think this might be why ProRugby struggled to sell it's product to broadcasters in its first year.
By contrast, there is a tried and tested model for selling 7s tournaments to American broadcasters. You need only look at the Vegas 7s and the CRC 7s to see this. ESPN happily buys up this space. These events constitute 12-16 hours of low-cost non-stop sports programming run over 2-3 days in a weekend. That is something you can sell to a broadcaster! Clearly, because ESPN is buying it. I would hazard to guess that USA Rugby sells the broadcast right to the Vegas 7s for more cash than all the International 15s games during an entire season (Chicago Tests included). What does that tell you? It tells me that a 12-16 hour package of rugby 7s programming has a quantifiable commercial value for TV broadcasters. And that if you had the ability to produce this kind of event every two weeks for a period say 3-4 months, you could sell that too. You could probably sell it for more than enough more to support the expenses of 8-12 pro rugby 7s teams stationed in places like San Diego, Kansas City, Austin, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Imagine that? Every two weeks, we get a full weekend of Rugby 7s, using weekends opposed to the International 7s circuit. How good would that be?
Side note: Doug - you’re already paying your players for 12 months anyway, why not try this with a core group of backs and loose forwards? Even if it’s only for a single-day tournament once a month. This can work!
For men to support women’s rugby
The Olympics were an excellent illustration of how good women's rugby can be. The women's games were thrilling to watch. The quality was extraordinary. I think it would be fair to say that women's rugby 7s is eminently more watchable than women's basketball or college softball.
But women's rugby seems to suffer from the same patriarchal attitudes that exist throughout society. I spend as much or more time talking to female rugby players than I do to male ones. These ladies all too often comment to me that they feel mistreated or undervalued by their male counterparts. It's a somber thing to hear. And I would put it to every male rugby player in the country that this isn't good for our game. Just last week I had a young lady contact me on Facebook to point out that I had forgotten to edit a recent blog post for gender neutrality. She was right to point this out. And we’ve tried hard to do exactly that. But every time someone slips up like this, we risk alienating women from public discourse.
Rugby has one major advantage over American Football in particular. At every level of the game, there is a place for women in our sport. Think about that for a second and consider what this means for rugby's increase in participation. Even if you put aside the shocking treatment of women by players, the elevator videos and the pathetic fines and suspensions for domestic violence, American Football has a chronic problem with growth because women don't play the game. Yes, it's still the most economically dominant sports league in the country. But it has also hit a plateau regarding fan participation, ratings, and profit for teams. The NFL has a real problem attracting female fans. That's why we have the "everyone wear a pink ribbon" month and all the associated marketing. Because they simply can't work out how to involve women in a sport beyond $50 / week cheerleading gigs and sideline announcement roles.
To all the male rugby players in the country - we need to embrace the fact that women play rugby. We need to stop laughing and making snide comments. We need to get behind mixed touch leagues. We need to support women's programs at our school and in our clubs. We need to coach, or referee, or donate, or volunteer to pull beers. Every young lady in America who starts playing rugby and who is encouraged to keep going with it is another rugby fan for life who will watch the CRC 7s competition on ESPN3. Another fan who will subscribe to therugbychannel.tv. Another fan who will find a way to get to Chicago in September for an international. Another fan who will buy your team's jerseys and bring their kids to home games in your town. Another fan who will help make the Pro leagues we all so desperately want economically viable. Embrace this! Women's rugby could be the best thing to happen to men's rugby since lifting in lineouts.