PRO Rugby and the Melville/Latham Legacy. It’s not good. USAR Board of Directors needs the Swamp drained. 8

It’s been quite a week for American Rugby, unfortunately very little of it good.  We now have a standoff between USA Rugby and PRO Rugby that will do nothing but serve to drain both dollars and human resources that could be so much better spent.  This article is not about Big Bad Doug Schoninger (I’ve never met him), or how completely misguided he is in approach to the sport of Rugby Union (arguing with the CEO of World Rugby about how American Rugby values are different than the rest of the world), but about how the American Rugby Community got to this place and what we can do about it moving forward.

The Melville/Latham Legacy

The bottom line is that the sanctioning of PRO Rugby is one (one of several that will see light shortly) of the legacy moments of the Melville/Latham regime as CEO of USA Rugby and Chairman, USA Rugby respectfully.  These are not good moments.  I won’t beat up these recently departed gentlemen in absentia, but suffice to say that this 10 year era in American Rugby could actually set us back 10 years in terms of top tier club development.

Dan Payne’s Role

I won’t get into the rights/wrongs of the argument.  No one other than a court will ever know all the facts, and I’ll leave the commentary to the professional rugby writers and all the crazies on Facebook.  What I can confirm is that Dan Payne (USAR CEO) has inherited nothing short of a total mess left by his predecessor.  Payne will get slack from myself and others to right this ship, but make no mistake, he has inherited a mess.  It would be wrong for anyone on the “pro PRO Rugby” side of the argument to blame any of the current debacle on Payne.  He has to stand up and defend some spineless decision making of the past.

Here’s the Problem…

We have had NO leadership and/or accountability for the USAR CEO or the Board of Directors for years.  None.  The Congress is supposed to have this accountability, but when the “new Board” was formed a decade ago with a large, diverse congress – it is no wonder they have no critical mass to hold them together to hold the Board/CEO to account. What we have had is 10 years of people in the American Rugby community working with NO leadership at the top.  Payne at least gives us a breath of fresh air.  But, we still don’t have a plan – and without one all the work is for naught.

USA Rugby has NO Strategic Plan and has not had one for over 10 years

For a lot of the players and younger coaches, the concept of a Strategic Plan may not seem important. It wouldn’t to me if I were a player now. It’s boring, but a plan is the foundation of everything that comes from it.   It effects every single rugby person in our country and all the work and tireless hours being put in are so limited in the outcome because there is no plan to align around. No plan = No chance to succeed. I know that any business executive or person that has run any organization of any substance understands the absolute 100% criticality of a solid mission/vision and a commensurate Strategic Plan.

That said, there is something on USAR’s website called a Strategic Plan.  However, it is nothing short of useless and I’d hope the new CEO would delete it from the website.  It is dated 2013.  It is more of a ‘report’ than plan.  I wonder if anyone has ever gone back and reviewed the strategies and goals of this ‘plan’. That’s what real business entities do.  Successful, functional ones anyway. Analysis of the results would have had Melville departing well before he did.

A plan would offer some assurances on major issues in USA Rugby like:

  1. Horrific performances of National Teams
  2. Completely abandoned club rugby structure
  3. No top tier competition from which to consider ‘elite’ team selections
  4. Women’s game in complete disarray
  5. College structure so beleaguered that teams/leagues are doing their own thing
  6. And many others…

So, in light of NO Strategic Plan – some incredibly large financial decisions have been made, and the current debacle that is PRO Rugby is one of them.  Rugby International Marketing (RIM), LLC is another.  But RIM is a story for another time.  But, how could RIM be created in a vacuum with no plan? Again, for another time.

For whatever reason he saw, Doug Schoninger created  PRO Rugby and bid it to Melville and the USAR Board.  He advises that three Board members signed off on his deal…

Schoninger: I can’t get into all the specifics. That will come out as it comes out. But there’s a lot. I think the real problem with USA Rugby is that it’s amateur. Probably not a well-bandwidthed organization. And I dealt with the CEO at the time  [Nigel Melville] and Board members that were aware… RWU: Aware of the sanctioning agreement? Schoninger: Right. So this wasn’t done by one person as some people think. They have governance issues that I think three Board members have to sign off on it. So three members signed. So the point isn’t about that.

I’d like to know who these three Board members are that signed off on this sanctioning, and call for their resignation.   Here’s why:

I was at the home of a USA Rugby Board member this summer and asked specifically about PRO Rugby.  The response went something like,

“TR, Schoninger was the first one to pop up with a real concept for professional rugby in America.  He said he had $30 Million, that he was a hedge fund guy who recently had fell in love with the sport.  We believed him, we did not do much due diligence and awarded him the sanction”.

Here’s another issue, summarized in Pat Clifton’s recent article in RugbyToday

Paying in a timely fashion has historically been an issue for Schoninger. A report from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an independent organization dedicated to protecting investors by regulating brokers, reveals Schoninger, who formerly worked as a broker, has two outstanding liens against him. He owes the IRS more than $141,000 and a law firm more than $34,000.

These liens were in play prior to PRO Rugby being founded.  Simple public research into Schoninger by the CEO/Board would have brought these liens to light.

What’s going on at the USA Rugby Board?

It is clear that the sanctioning never should have occurred in the first place (but now that it has, Schoninger may have a case – again I won’t comment on that), but it did because of a complete lack of vision (i.e. no plan), or accountability on the part of the CEO or Board.  In other words, the ‘leaders’ of USA Rugby, the former CEO (again Payne gets some time, he needs support) and Board have completely failed this union.  There are plenty of Harvard degrees, other Ivy League degrees, Goldman Sachs resume’s, West Pointers, etc on this Board, but I’m sorry folks – they have shown little to no vision for our sport and have actually now sent us spiraling backwards with the PRO Rugby debacle being allowed to occur.  Our Board members are good, solid, upstanding people.  And, many of them are not suited to be on the Board of the USA’s national governing body for Rugby Union.  The members complicit in the PRO Rugby sanctioning should resign for their negligence.

Not one Board member has rugby experience above the club level (with the exception of the International Athletes – who respectfully, do not have the experience to effect major business decisions, or clearly have not used the athletic understanding to move this Board in any appropriate direction).  The current Chair, Will Chang seems to be focusing solely on the 7’s RWC in San Francisco.  Where has he been, or any board member for that matter, during this time where their CEO is getting fired at from all directions?

The latest Board member to be appointed, Dean Barrett (ex-senior marketing executive at McDonalds Corporation) is probably a good pick for a Board position somewhere, but with no rugby experience – probably not this one.  Initial reports he is the most professional, business attentive person on the Board. However, at this time, USA Rugby really does not have much to ‘market’. His selection got me thinking that our priorities for our ‘leadership’ are misaligned…

Our CEO/Board and the nominating committee have been focusing on looking for ‘business executive types’ to add value to the brand of USA Rugby.  Here’s the problem… we have a very poor brand.  We have a poor product.  We have nothing for the likes of a Dean Barrett, or Melissa Brennan at RIM, to go into serious money negotiations because we have very little to offer.  My thought is that instead of trying to market a substandard brand, how about we build a world class brand that will require very little marketing. The money and its benefactors will be running to support a world class brand.

Unfortunately, the PRO debacle has done nothing to enhance USAR’s credibility worldwide. Quite the opposite.

The makeup of the current USA Rugby Board does not have the horsepower to generate a World Class Brand. If they did, the leaders among them would have called for a Strategic Plan years ago. We would be on the way to developing a world class brand. But, we are not.  We are mired the results of years of negligence and lack of planning.  A plan requested by Melville to be delivered in the fall of 2016 was rejected in full by new CEO Dan Payne.   The Board did not hold Melville to account (quite the opposite in retrospect) and here we are.  No plan, and now no Professional Rugby.  It’s not all Schoninger’s fault.  He is a byproduct of a broken organization, and he should never have been sanctioned in the first place.

The conversation about ‘Strategic Plan’ is boring.  But it’s essential.  We will need leaders to work alongside Payne to execute and implement.  I just hope that USA Rugby is current on its D&O Insurance!

USA Rugby needs an entirely new Board of Directors.  Calling on Congress. As a minimum the three Board members who signed off on the PRO Sanction should resign immediately.

Here are some other articles I have written on this issue:

  1. Romania 23 – USA Eagles 10. The real reason Romania won; Top Tier Competition, Strategic Plan.
  2. A Letter to USA Rugby Congress re: RIM, PRO, Eagles, etc..
  3. USA Rugby’s Strategic Plan: It’s not about the Eagles, and it’s all about the Eagles!
  4. USA Rugby: Professionalism & The Strategic Plan (The most important thing you never cared about)
  5. USA Rugby: Pro League being announced this week? And, What’s behind “RIM” anyway? #NoMoreOandFour

Tony Ridnell is a former USA Eagle having earned 14 caps, played in three World Cups, w/ four Hong Kong Sevens appearances.  He is the Founder and CEO of TRInternational, Inc, founded in 1994.



  1. Pro rugby is what it is : a high-level club level exhibition that has nothing to do with advancing USA rugby. i’m in the Philippines for a couple of weeks and I saw Nigel Melville on one these sky sports satellite channels in an interview talking about something in the UK and I wonder how we ever got flim flammed into paying him three hundred thousand dollars a year to do what he did for us.
    A strategic plan is like a budget for a business : without one you have no direction/guidance sort of like our present Federal government.
    why don’t we just cut to the chase here?why am I unable to walk into a bar during a USA rugby Test and watch the match on a TV? our world ranking has not improved one iota since the Jack Clark days. Rugby gets our country’s fifth tier athletes . when are we going to start to address that 900 pound gorilla sitting over there in the corner?
    thanks for the article Tony ; very few people in our country bring the real issues to the forefront for the rest of us to examine
    Bill Gardner

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