This article is not about the Eagles, nor is it really about professional rugby. It is about the thousands of young boys and girls that have been exposed to our game and its values who will want to play at the highest level possible, and have a glimmer in the back of their mind of one day playing in a Red, White, and Blue Jersey.
The joint announcement made Monday by the Austin Huns & Allen Griffins raises several issues regarding the ‘growth’ of rugby in America. The Huns/Griffins model takes a ‘bottom up’ approach to their professionalism — building community, local sponsorship, youth programs, clubs, etc. together to literally form their own culture/destiny. Austin Huns president, Richard Osborn shares some of the vision in this video.
The current sanctioned league, PRO Rugby, has taken a strict top down approach, controlling everything from player contracts to uniform kit design, seeking to create an immediate impact and build a market by creating it’s own teams/clubs.
Neither model is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Both serve a specific purpose for their respective benefactors.
Elite domestic competition is imperative to the Eagles’ success
The few detractors on my article published on Saturday, May 14 regarding Professionalism and the Strategic plan claimed that an NGB has no place dictating anything about professional leagues.
USA Rugby, through its soon to be released strategic plan (“The Plan”), must create an opening for all the ‘professional movements’ that are happening around the country. The Huns/Griffins announcement is the first of many to come. Both approaches (PRO and H/G) can have their goals and vision realized if the vehicle for communication is provided with a framework provided by The Plan. Regardless, an elite competition (on our shores) must be created such that our top players get the week in/week out high level playing experience required for our national teams to compete at a high level. PRO is the first effort at making this happen.
Don’t Compare Rugby to other USA Professional Sports
Some people have said ‘NGB’s don’t get involved in baseball and basketball’. That could not be further from the truth. During the Olympics you will see players coveting the ‘USA Basketball’ logo, just as our Eagles will don the ‘USA Rugby’ logo. In addition, and exponentially more important, we have something in rugby called ‘The Rugby World Cup’. It is the holy grail of our sport and American Rugby is judged by the rest of the world on our performance during this quadrennial event. Baseball, and to a lesser extent (in terms of the world giving a darn) basketball do not have such global events (you know, the “World Series”). MLB and NBA are also extremely mature entities. They are the pinnacle of their sports. They are where ALL the great players go to play. This is the ‘elite competition’ I am talking about. It’s going to happen here, we need to decide whether it will take five years or twenty five.
Regardless of all the ‘professional teams/leagues’ popping up, we must have one elite competition where the top players gravitate. Without this our national team performance is doomed to the mediocrity we have witnessed over the past 12 or more years. We have so much momentum as a rugby nation right now; the time is now for rational conversation to discuss the primary needs of all the separate factions. The conversation needs to have the elite competition strategy already laid out in The Plan to provide guidance for all participants.
The Responsibility of USA Rugby
USA Rugby is 100% responsible for the success and welfare of the elite National Teams, the Eagles. These Eagles will be the products of professional rugby soon. It is my opinion that without a successful (and marketable) national team, the growth of any ‘professionalism’ will be slowed. I believe the converse is true as well. USA Rugby must create an environment for professional rugby to flourish. This is nothing to leave to chance. The Eagles success depends on it. And the marketability/branding of rugby in the USA depends on it as well. The National Teams can add or subtract equity value to any league in the USA.
I love what the Huns & Griffins announced yesterday and it’s exciting that someone like Doug Schoninger has stepped up with his version of PRO Rugby, regardless of it’s ‘authoritarian’ initial entry. This is all great stuff. However, lets all stay aligned that rugby’s World Cup separates us from other American sporting analogies. I’d like to see USA Rugby through it’s strategic plan, create an opening for professionalism to grow, prosper and create excellence at all levels and for the women equally alike. Today’s announcement by the Huns/Griffin’s raises the bar for everyone, … however, we should be concerned about the dilution of our top talent, even at this early stage of professionalism in this country.
All the young people being introduced to the game now will want, and deserve, logical pathways to play rugby at the highest level possible. Whether that is on the international stage or at home in front of friends and family, the decisions we make now will have enormous effect.
As a player representing the USA (RWC 1987, 1991), I would have done anything to participate in such professional environments. As a rugby playing nation, we have an opportunity to get this right – first time. The leadership at USA Rugby must help create and guide these elite pathways (in whatever legal right it has to do so!). This is an opportunity for collaborative and transformative change in American Rugby, to wrap the efforts of all the great rugby people in America underneath a logical, vetted, and world class Strategic Plan.
I have been nominated for a seat on the USA Rugby Board of Directors. These are my thoughts and I would welcome an opportunity to participate in the leadership of USA Rugby.