USA Rugby: Pro League being announced this week? And, What’s behind “RIM” anyway? #NoMoreOandFour 24

I had an epiphany today about where I belong in rugby at age 54 and have not been actively engaged in for many years.  My next post will be about why I am all of a sudden I am so passionate all of a sudden (in short, just sick and tired of blindly accepting mediocrity), and I’ll provide a background behind that in that post.

Today’s post will focus on BIG ISSUES and pose questions, that I want answered.  #NoMoreMediocrity

I have heard there is a professional rugby league being announced this week for the United States domestic rugby scene. It is for play beginning in April, 2016.  Teams are proposed to have 5 internationals per 30 man squad, 10 U.S. Internationals and the rest club players… A fellow named Doug Schiniger (sp?) has signed a deal with USA Rugby for the rights to put on this pro league.  I don’t know him or anything about him. Does anyone else?  Feel free to private message me on FB or email me at trseattle@hotmail.com 

My assessment: On the surface this is terrific. Who wouldn’t want this?  However,  I want to know who exactly vetted this thing?  I am not being a nay-sayer, I just want to know who looked at it and approved it.  Is their governance?  The reason I ask is because the following three articles/announcements are very coincidal and if my ‘connect the dots’ matrix is true – then there are individual USAR Board members who stand to gain financially from this venture. Frankly, I find that preposterous.

Here are three announcements to read before going further (Read in order)

So here is how this is going down as I try and understand it.
1. Melville and other Board Members create a separate company RIM which is a for profit company that will be owned by the USA Rugby  (a non profit).
2. The RFU (yes, the English one) announces an investment in this for profit company.
3. I hear rumors of a Pro League being announced.. and it should be announced this week
I have a few questions…
1. If the RFU is able to ‘invest’ in RIM which is a for profit company, and the USAR ‘owns the company’ then how much does USAR own, and how much is up for sale to the likes of RFU.
2. Do any of the current USAR Board members have a stake in this new for profit venture
3.  Along comes the Pro League.. hmm interesting timing … Do any of the board members have a financial stake in the success of this Pro League?
I may be completely naïve – and feel free to tell me so, but all I read in the articles is about how much money all this stuff will bring in.  But, there is no addressing an underlying problem – and that is the quality of the rugby.  I have become a true advocate of a saying… if all we do is throw money at this (and some happens to get syphoned off to ‘investors’) with no infrastructure changes to improve the quality of our play then it is wasted money (but some select individuals profit regardless)
As I stated in earlier posts… its great that more and more kids are playing rugby, but if we don’t address the fundamental proactive work to significantly raise the standard of play at all levels then all we have is “more people playing mediocre rugby”.
Which brings me to the Pro League.  Great concept, I do like it.  But who vetted this?  Is there oversight to the vetting and approval process – or is this some inside deal between USAR Board members that allows them to have financial gain regardless if the league actually functions and improves the level of our rugby.
I will wait intently on this announcement.  I want to hear the intricate details how this league will be marketed. Where teams/franchises, etc.. are awarded.  What is the incentive for players.  What is the incentive at the grass roots level to rally support for the league and make the events a world class experience?
I am not naysaying.  I promise.  But I am not going to blindly go into this thing with rose colored glasses saying ‘Yay we have a pro league, our problems are over, we will win the world cup in 2027 (when Nigel Melville announced he wants to host in USA – but I digress)’.
What I am saying is… we as a USA Rugby Community MUST ensure that this venture succeeds.  And if we don’t like the plan, then we need to do something about it. We cannot have this league play in front of 300 people. I want to see full on marketing and franchise plans, and I will welcome them if it is well intended.
I have only heard on hearsay – but the reputation is ‘this guy is in it for the money’.  Readers, here me now… We need an entire rugby nation to align with the plan… whatever it is.  I want to make sure that as a community this is the plan that will work.  Because if it fails, rugby as we want it to be in the USA will be thrown back by decades.
From a personal perspective, I don’t give two darns about the money.  I want the players to have incentive to play here – but more importantly I want the quality of the rugby experience and the quality of play improved so that it can translate to high performance on the World stage.  That is my motivation.
My goal is to see the USA Rugby Eagles participate in a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal match before I die.  I don’t want to make any money from rugby.  All I want is the effort I am about to put in to be rewarded by a ticket to that match.  Nothing else.
#NoMoreOandFour
Always welcome any and all feedback.

24 comments

  1. Tony. This is actually very cool. In a similar frustrated rave in my own and in response to Bobby Robert A. Hacker I thought having a professional domestic televised rugby league was the necessary step for the sport to be real for the type of athletes in our country to make us competitive. Italy and Japan have pro teams. Spain who isn’t even in the World Cup has pro teams. Fiji has a Pro Team.

    Regarding who owns in or who makes money from it. I don’t really care. This will be an expensive and risky endeavor. It will have a better chance of failure than success.

    The North American Soccer League brought over Pele, Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Bekenbauer. I recall going to a New York Cosmos game in 1977 I think to a packed house in Giants Stadium. I played Soccer in rural Little Axe because of that the next year.

    NASL failed but Soccer took root and we have MSL today, more kids play soccer than anything else and it’s a horrible game to watch.

    I embrace any idea for pro televised rugby 7’s or 15’s funded by the British or the Martians.

    Pay players and put them on TV do it now. Watch it support it, sponsor it. No more 0 and 4!

    • Jon, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. You are on my ‘short list’ to call and collaborate with. I will keep this short, and I am glad you brought up NASL. I am going to attempt to meet with Adrian Hanauer to see if he would meet with me and share his experience with the Seattle Sounders FC. It is the best brand development in a short period of time in the history of sports IMHO.I love that you said this has more chance to fail than to succeed. If we are to play in a RWC QF before I die (54 now, do the math :-)) then this MUST succeed. That is all I am asking for. Has this been vetted by people who are not financially vested in it just getting off the ground? If yes, and by people myself, yourself and a group of people that ‘get it’ and are not beholden to performing fellatio on each other when we put on a tie and attend a rugby event – then I will stand down and align with it and get on board and support. Until that time I want to get some answers. Because we must create a ‘failure is not an option’ scenario. Just throwing money at it will not raise the standard in our country. I love what Chris Prenticehas done in his capacity to ‘grow the game’. But as I told him, and I believe it – left alone to that…. all we will have is more people playing mediocre rugby. And that’s where we are. Mediocre. No more kidding ourselves. Mediocre at the club level, and everything above. With VERY minor exception, I believe this to be true. Can you imaging being Jack Clark and putting out 15 or so wonderful, respectful, talented, young men each year and see them thrown into this club rugby mediocrity. Not that our club guys are doing amazing things in their own rights… Again, this is not an indictment on individuals. It is an indictment on our system and infrastructure. All I want is some accountability and know that our board is acting in 100% good faith and that MY ultimate goal, which is a higher standard (like UK premiership stuff) week in and week out and we create a premiership culture. The initial sounding of Pro League is great – but has it been vetted to ensure the level of play and it’s ‘needle’ is moved significantly? Please don’t think that this is the answer. It is only an answer if it works, and people that know this game in this country and know what it will take on the field MUST do what we can to ensure this cannot fail. Thanks for taking the time to post. I hope i am making myself clear… If in the know rugby men in this country have confidence, I will align and support. At this time, none and I mean none of my network have confidence in this Board and any decision making that has been done. I like Mike Tolkin, but really – at what level does a high school coach get to participate in a Rugby World Cup. Could that happen in ANY rugby playing nation? That is lambs to the slaughter. The initial feedback I have is that the players were vastly disappointed with their experience, not just on the field – but that coaches did not do all they could do. This is the Boards job, oversight of this. More on this later. The problem Jon, and I have personal experience is the thoughts of the players today is the EXACT word for word thoughts I had 24 years ago in my RWC experience. And our coach and board and blow hards think we are making progress. Blind faith. Its garbage. More later. #NoMore0andFour.

  2. Hi Tony, love reading your thoughts on the state of rugby union in our country. I happened upon the sport in the mid-1990s and have loved it every since. I’m a huge believer in the idea that we need a professional league in the States to really develop the quality of players we need to take on the “Tier 1” sides and advance in the World Cup. We have to having players training year round and focusing on the sport… and just as importantly, we have to expose them to regular high quality competition. I want nothing but the best if these new rumored pro league comes to fruition, and I will definitely support it. I’ve come to believe that one way forward would be for USA Rugby and Rugby Canada to form a new union, similar in form and function to SANZAR, and start to develop an North American version of Super Rugby. Pool resources, spread out the financial burden, and expand the player opportunities for both nations. We would be stronger together in growing the sport, IMHO. But whatever comes our way, in terms of pro competitions, it needs to be run soundly, deliberately, and with a vision for player development and sport expansion. It has to be taken seriously or it will fail quickly. If I ever win the lottery, I would invest a lot of money and effort into the sport, but we obviously can’t rely on that day coming! LOL Anyway, love reading your insights and thoughts! Take care!

    • Hey Scott, thanks for taking the time to read and reply with detailed thoughts. I have thought about USA/Canada – but I just don’t think that is a reality or the way to go. I believe we do have all the resources we need right in front of us. We need technical help of course… but we have everything else. We do need a structure that when actions are put in place, we need accountability and a strict adherence to excellence. Leaders that are willing and ready to make a difference. That shift can create all the entities that ‘do it on their own’ to work cohesively. This is a leadership issue. The rugby issues will fall in place after that.

    • Scott – Yes, Yes, and more Yes. Of course you are well grounded in all your assessments. I have trouble with the current leadership being able to implement/execute the plans we have in place. There are some good ideas. And some ideas (i.e. ProLeague ) that could be devastating to the game here if not implemented properly. I have spoken with 4 members of the board today and made a powerful request of them. Today was step one in what could be a long process.

  3. There are a lot of factors that really bother me. I’ve been playing and coaching in the USA rugby community for about 15 years and it is very apparent that for the longest time, Rugby (in the US) has been marketed as a fraternity that happens to play a sport. This has affected the connection people have with rugby in their day to day lives. Most people affiliated with fraternities may attend an annual event and write a check every so often for support, but overall that manner of connection doesn’t really attract a consolidated fan base and it does little more than support a recreational/social competition system beyond college. Professionalization is crucial. I think everyone agrees, but I don’t think that the community is ready for the level of exclusion that comes with it. We currently have a culture where everyone has access to playing at the highest level on offer in the US, there are some people that are not ready to let that go, since the reason they are attracted to rugby had little to do with being a fan of anything particular structure, but being a participant in a social structure of sorts.
    That being said…USA Rugby appears to be governed in that same fashion. Add Poor communication and engagement at best, lack of reporting transparency at worst; we often seem to be a rudderless community. In terms of bringing the spectacle of the game (save some sevens events) we’ve largely failed in helping engage USA Rugby with the general public (heck even the community within). These things are only reinforced by the media rights situations we deal with simply to watch rugby. Every single country had access to the entire world cup without any extra cost…We ended up with a streaming site and a few games on a channel that few people have. This is the marquee event of our sport, and people are paying to watch it…(unlike peers, Soccer World Cup, Track and Field Worlds, FIBA, men and women, Volleyball and etc). It appears just as with any investment, the RFU is interested in what they can sell in the US Sports Market.. I don’t begrudge that, Im an MBA myself…but I’m not particularly thrilled with the level of engagement. We talk heavily about the successes of youth rugby, but we’ve created little to no consistency in development infrastructure to yield players that could compete in the Tier we would need them to do so consistently. All these kids need spectacles to see, events to attend and media to engage them where they are, so they can make connection with THEIR Nation’s brand of rugby. The average USA rugby player doesnt see themselves in this current team, beyond those with familiar ties. I cant imagine the average general rugby fan is much better. Hopefully the league would take that head on, but part of me sees this becoming a farm league for the RFU (a la the DR or PR in baseball for the US)

    Rant over lol

    • I completely agree. These issues are identified, we are all saying it. And, thank-you for your eloquence in saying it. Recognizing all that, now is the time to do something about it. Lets do that.

  4. Tony, I’m very interested in watching how this plays out. I believe professional rugby union in the USA is an almost inevitability. However, I don’t believe that this is the direction to go. The basic question that I would ask is, “Why reinvent the wheel?” There is one group in this country that is in a perfect position to get a professional rugby Union competition operational and instantly into the public consciousness. The group in question are the NFL owners. They already possess the media infrastructure to get attention for the competition and to generate the necessary public attention. They have massive stadiums that sit idle for more than 50% of the year. Generating another revenue stream would be more than welcome. The NFL owners own teams that are under threat from injury concerns. The numbers of football playing youth have been steadily falling at the same time that the numbers of rugby playing youth is steadily growing. Owning a professional Rugby franchise would be a hedge against the potential collapse of the current football structure. Don’t think that’s possible, consider that most of the industry leading companies in 1975 are now gone. NFL owners are constrained by contract limits so filling out rosters during the season becomes problematic as injuries take their toll. Signing players to rugby contracts allows owners to keep promising talented players under contract and still not breach the current team alignment agreements. NFL owners control the talented athletes coming from college each year. These athletes are used to a professional set up and performing under professional conditions. We’ve seen time and again how Tier I athletes translate well into our top rugby athletes i.e. Dan Lyle, Chief Leversee, Jay Wilkerson, Rich Shurfield, Dave Hodges, etc. Each year, NFL teams dismiss enough Tier I athletes in the final cut down to the season that would populate the entire league. As I said, the NFL teams already have the marketing apparatus to get the story out and drum up public support. Plus, there already exist natural inter city cross sport rivalries. i.e. Pittsburgh v Cincinnati, Chicago v Green Bay, Los Angeles v San Francisco, Nyc v Boston, etc. It will be a very easy sell as long as the prices make sense to attract a new fan base. Putting together a league with the likes of the Rooney family, Woody Johnson (Jets), John Mara (NY Giants), Tom Benson (Saints) and Jerry Jones adds legitimacy and validity in the public’s perception. Finally, I would be suspicious of any league that doesn’t include Rugby’s own Mark Cuban as an owner/investor. He still identifies as a rugger and is prone to turn up at the occasional tournament or two. Finally, the NFL has the infratructure to deal with player contracts and other legalities. I would be very encouraged to see a partnering with the NFL.

    • Gary, thanks for taking the time to read and reply in such detail. I really like your big picture. I am trying to make a distinction. Regardless of its a “professional league”, …. It must be “League that is Professional”. I am sure you get the distinction. This is what I want to sort out at all levels. Everyone can agree we need a much stronger ‘pathway’ from School Rugby to the Eagles.

      • I’m not sure I do understand your distinction. (In another comment on another post, you pointed out that different people have their own definitions of what “professional” means.)

        To my mind, a professional league is one in which playing the game is the players’ livelihood. Are you suggesting something different? If it is the former case, while this is something that so many people want, I’m not sure it is viable; ultimately you need either incredibly generous benefactors (not a sustainable option), or a fan base that enables you to monetize it with tickets and advertising (something we are nowhere near having). If it is the latter, what exactly do you envision, how do we get from here to there, and how (and this is the most important thing) do we pay for it.

        It appears (and I would not disagree), that I use too many parentheses.

      • Alan, can’t necessarily get into specifics because it gets us in this spin cycle of minutia. We have to get in position to make a difference. lets focus on the 95% stuff we agree on and work to make it excelllent, and not belabor the 5% we don’t.

    • Gary, this is the type of idea and has validity. We have to run this union as a business, regardless if its non profit. The stories I have heard with an informal of study of what goes on at USA Rugby, the Board, and the Congress is very disappointing. And the conduct of the team on the recent RWC2015 was apparently completely amateur (in terms of having any expectations). This is what we accept? I have saved your message.

      Oh, and did I tell you that I played HS Baseball w/ Roger Goodell (NFL Commissioner). True Story. #serendipity?

  5. The most important thing you say in this well thought out article is the fear that people will believe all issues can be addressed by a pro league (my take on your words). Personally I feel it is premature to launch a pro league for a lot of reasons. It will be interesting to see how all this develops.

    • I don’t think its a bad idea. I think it is an idea who’s time has come. But, it MUST be done right, immediately out of the shoot. I have attempted to reach the ‘founder’ of ProLeague, but despite my insistence on a conversation, was kicked to the curb and basically told to ‘wait for the announcement’. I do not believe this ‘league’ has spoken to any key stakeholders at a level below the USAR board. I have a decent rugby network in the USA and no one has heard squat. So the rumor of putting first match on in Spring 2016 is either a. impossible, or b. going to be a piss poor event. This league could decimate the club system as we know it. We need a pathway to the Eagles, and I’d love to see this premiership league take us there. If I am satisfied, I am all in. But a lot of questions – I won’t put that laundry list here. If this League fails, it will put us back by years in terms of our attempt to build a real rugby culture. My point is this. Lets stop pushing up a tree and have our USAR be in the tree helping everyone else climb.

  6. Sorry for the second post … from where I sit there are not enough truly professional ready players to put a quality product on the field. It would be a professional league in name only. With only half a dozen teams it would also offer too few games to really make a difference in player development in my opinion.

    The mistake that is being made, in my view, is not leveraging what is truly unique in the American sports landscape and getting full benefit from that. What would that be? College athletics. It is a four year period where young people have no pressure to earn a living salary and are in a learning environment. Our college athlete system produces world class athletes on a routine basis and is why athletes from all over the world come to the US to refine their craft while getting an education.

    The powers that be should focus on getting 25 – 30 truly first class programs along the lines of Cal Berkley and BYU up and running. At the present time I don’t believe there are more than 4 or 5 such programs in place. With a squad of 45 players per team that translates into getting over 1100 rugby athletes in high performance programs every year.

    There is no reason why such a venture could not be commercialized – how many millions are made from college athletics? And frankly building a competition around known collegiate “brands” will be a lot easier to sell then some anonymous team that nobody has heard of or could care less about. By focusing on this area for say the next 4 – 5 years you could then have places for our aspiring high school rugby players to go to school and continue playing rugby in a high performance atmosphere. They would come out of college as professional ready athletes ready to perform. The quality of the product being offered to the public will be strong and the competition will be strong.

    Build the blocks. Quality college rugby and THEN a professional league with all the trappings of professional sports in this country … draft picks etc etc.

    Involving the NFL makes a lot of sense though there is so much I hate about the NFL I would fear that rugby would lose that uniqueness that drew most of us to the game (not the drinking – I personally never went for that). If the dollars the NFL could be tapped into without losing what is great about rugby that would be a true winning situation.

    • Your ideas are very sound. College focus then Pro… I am saying lets do it concurrently, and if the ProLeague can help create that ‘pathway’ (a term I am using with increasing frequency) between college and Eagle play. Agree on the # of ‘professionally run’ college programs. Imagine if those elites had a real premier league (a league run professionally, not necessarily a professional league – note the distinction) to use as a pathway to International play. Premier teams being run professionally. I like the NFL analogy, but we have NOTHING to offer them now, zero, nada. You make a lot of sense. My key here is this. You and I will never agree on everything. Lets get people in position of power that ‘we’ trust. Trust to care for our game, trust to put plans in place where accountability is key. Trust will have exceedingly high personal and professional standards. Get a team in place we trust and we align with and then support to 100%. No more bitching. But it takes leadership. We do this in America. Apply it to our NGB of Rugby , which is USAR. Run it like a great American corporation that it can be – one where the CEO and other executives have not created a for profit entity that might provide personal gain. Don’t get me started on that.

  7. Not to beat a dead horse but AJ MacGinty’s signing with Connacht points to the real difficulty in launching a professional league in the US. MacGinty and any other Eagle or player with Eagle ambitions should lay in the best league with the best pay they can get. The issue with this is that the best American talent will continue to go overseas so the product you are left with on the field, already light on talent, is further diluted.

    Happy for MacGinty and this simply highlights the challenges of launching a professional league at this time.

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  9. A little birdie says Texans owner is probably on board. As others have said even if NFL owners are not too bright and don’t get involved and this effort fails, at least it will be one decent effort versus nothing else to date. Sure there will be issues with the quality of players available at this higher level and shame on Melville for having done nothing at collegiate level to really keep the best athletes with scholarships. With 5 decent pros per team and the cast offs from American football, we can get the level raised fairly quickly.

    • Yes, I believe this to be true regarding the Texans owner. I spoke to a congress person today who had first hand knowledge of that. Pete, it will be great to get this kind of injection. But I believe, and am open to being thoroughly proven wrong – that just throwing high powered names and some money at something will not settle the core and fundamental issues we have in all aspects of our game in this country. A working pro league (as I stated on the podcast) could be the best thing ever to happen to our game in this country. And, I also feel that if not well executed and aligned with the key grass roots stakeholders at the club level (at least understanding and alignment) that this could be disastrous for our state of play. Why is this so ‘closed door’… don’t get me started about the financial side…

  10. Jon Velie’s opening comment does not disclose that he is the de factor GC for USAR, so his cheery dismissal of concern for PRO Rugby is strange. Also, Jon is one of the few who completely understands the difference between Title 15 commercial law with the Sherman Act as perhaps the keystone law versus the Title 36 “Olympic and amateur” law code. I think he is bright enough to cleverly weave together two completely opposite US soccer precedents to back the “good” of PRO Rugby. The NASL was a massive success – perhaps the most significant commercial sports success last 50 years – because the price points for the likes of Pele and Breckenbauer and all those FA guys was almost exactly as rugby players are priced now and that they kept a concentrated highest world quality product with a small number of teams. And – most important – USSF had no role and could not set a national agenda such as limiting foreign players. MLS has been a massive failure as the product quality sucks, is not world caliber and cannot find a broadcasting agreement (the Chuckie Blazer extortion carriage agreement based on FIFA rights aint a deal as ratings continue to be about “0”) and the “single entity” is just reaching breakeven after 20 plus years. Mean salary is about 60,000 but median salary is about 30,000 showing that only stioends are paid and there are foreign player restrictions. USSF and FIFA are all over it and SUM is the vehicle that allows this Title 15 to Title 36 and back again cross over. Velie knows that this skates the intent of the law if not is against the law. So Velie is talking through both sides of his mouth and frankly I find a highly trained legal mind using NASL then MLS as a positive precedent very concerning.

  11. George many of us would like to understand the issues and history better. The last time I asked you for info you simply told me to look up ‘Title 36’ There is something ‘fishy’ about someone who cannot link us to better info and/or some sort of white paper on this issue. It surely can’t be just in the imaginative minds of a few of you.

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  13. Pingback: PRO Rugby and the Melville/Latham Legacy. It’s not good. USAR Board of Directors needs the Swamp cleaned out. « Tony Ridnell

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