My USA Rugby NDS Experience. The good, bad, & ugly. 5

This report is supposed to be about NDS, but the theme will be money.  The need for every ‘silo’ that exists in rugby in America to raise money.  And, the difficulties that surround the attempt to raise that money.

The GOOD

This was my 2nd NDS, I attended the San Francisco meeting in 2016 and was delighted to see people I had not met before my first NDS and got to connect like old friends in 2017 (after a year on Facebook, we all know each other, right?!?).  People like John Walker, Heather Harley, The Feury’s (Tom and KJ), , Karen Fong Donahue, Erik Geib, etc..are a few of the committed rugby administrators I met for the 2nd time at NDS.    Committed rugby people.

The venue of the meeting was perfect, all activities hovering on an open floor plan on the 5th floor of the Baltimore Renaissance.  Suffice to say, the bar next door to the conference venue did some solid business on the weekend.

I received a warm welcome from the USA Rugby staff as I picked up my name tag, and want to point out I was replied to within an hour on New Years Day by a staff member assisting me to fix a registration issue.

The buzz around the conference was fantastic. If you’re a rugby lover, you get to talk rugby (and only rugby) for basically as long as you are awake for a 3-4 day period.  Count me in!

The conference hall and displays were generally first class, and the vendors friendly, modestly aggressive (as any good sales person should be at a trade show!), and excited about future prospects.  There is a minor exception – I will explain below.

An Example of ‘Why attend NDS’…Rugby Utah meets Big 10

One of the benefits of a conference/tradeshow is for those who have the gumption to ‘put together business’ for whatever entity they represent at that show. I had never met Ken Rivera (Rugby Utah) or Ken Pape (Big 10 Womens Commissioner, Rutgers U, etc..) but had the opportunity to sit next to them as they exchanged real conversation about how the highly talented pool of Utah female rugby players could be better exposed to Big 10 Universities… The talk of running ‘combines’ for that purpose and partnering to bring teams/administrators together was inspiring.  It also emphasized to me how Embryonic we are regarding our stage of rugby regarding structure and national conscience.

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Ken Pape (left) of Big 10 Women’s Commissioner and Ken Rivera (Rugby Utah) discussing getting Utah’s young female players more exposure to Big 10 Universities. This is why the NDS is invaluable and so important.

The BAD

My agenda at this conference was specifically to meet congress members and discuss their thoughts on rugby in America, their opinions on my writings and casts, and assess their ability as individuals/collective to hold our Board of Directors to account for the follies that have occurred at USA Rugby over the past years. They have three jobs;  ByLaw Changes, Confirmation of Dues Increases, and holding the Board of Directors ‘accountable’.

The reason, this topic is ‘Bad’ and not in the ‘Ugly’ section of this article is that the individual members of congress are pretty much all great people in their own right…incredible passion, yet unfortunately by definition – absolutely powerless as an organization.  This is a problem.  A big one, and should be changed in the by laws to create leadership in this organization (not just a ‘representative to the board’), but a real leader who can martial fair opinion and take appropriate action when necessary.  Now is the time for action in the arena of ‘holding the Board accountable’.

My assessment from this meeting is there are very few congress members that by experience/resume should be able to grasp the severity of the leadership void. It’s just not in the nature of the job description of ‘congress member’.  Half of them are too young, others without senior professional experience, and some others without the real concern and vested interest for these particular issues (i.e., Board removal) or stuck in the way of mediocrity and can’t just seem to get out.

This is no indictment on any individual congress member, all the members I met with were open to discussing how congress is ineffective and has no power due to this lack of appointed/elected leadership.  Maybe it is Jeremiah Johnson’s job to assume this proactive leadership, the members I spoke to did not feel that was his role, or at least he has not been authorized such.

The UGLY

  1. Silo’s
  2. Money

That’s it.  Silo’s and Money!

Silo’s

In each conversation at NDS, I often found I was discussing a topic other than the one that I came to look at.  Youth, Women’s, College, Clubs, National Teams, Conference/League administration, etc…and EVERY ONE of them is looking for money.  I want to call these individual groups ‘Silo’s’.  Every silo and every sub group of that silo is looking for money.  For example there is the youth director at USA Rugby I am sure could use more money, just as my friend Heather Harley is looking for money to fund her Fishers High School trip to Ireland in March (with over 100 people!!). Everyone is looking for money.  And it’s like we are all a bunch of people in a Charles Dickens movie with our hands out.

Mark Lambourne gave one of the best presentations on the weekend, “College Programs and Conferences: Challenges and Key Issues”.  What he is doing at James Madison University and the Chesapeake Conference is inspirational.  I was sitting in his presentation thinking, ‘if only we could do this at a national level’.  His most emphatic point was:

              “You can’t keep asking people for money”.

 

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A card from Mark Lambourne’s Deck. Can anyone disagree with his first bullet point?

 

Our reliance on handouts has to be ok, for now – and thanks to the people I have come across and heard about (all of whom do not want their name mentioned) whom have literally dumped millions of dollars into USA Rugby over the years.  I had no idea the extent of individual and group donations that allowed our Olympic teams to train, travel, and attempt to compete in a modicum of stability and excellence.  But, we cannot rely on this.  We cannot rely on donations.  I would estimate the percentage of ‘revenue’ from individual/group benefactors is higher than anyone would consider ‘sustainable’ if one of the big donor’s walked away.  Even Dan Payne had his hand out in the recent ‘Q and A’, stating ‘we will continue to lean on the membership’ several times, and plugging the USA Rugby Trust on multiple occasions. These are good add-on’s but we should not be reliant on.

We must gain structure, and around that structure money can come.  People create structure. Structure allows the opportunity for sustainable revenue.

We must bring the silo’s under the same roof, aligned to a ‘greater good’ and trust that with an executed plan there will be more money than we can possibly imagine at this time. We are more powerful as a group than individually.

Finally, RIM/The Rugby Channel

Note, I have not mentioned RIM in the conversation thus far. I was so underwhelmed with my conversations w/ Congress and RIM personnel regarding RIM and its golden child, ‘The Rugby Channel’.   Here is some math… I believe that the rights to Aviva Premiership on a live basis to USA would cost in the range of $400,000.   At $50/head for subscribers, TRC would need 8,000 subscribers solely to cover the cost for such an expense.  I believe the current number of subscribers is 7,000.  This math only computes for the Aviva Premiership example, but we need real content… what about Super Rugby, Tests, Top 14, Pro 12 (we have a little of that now thankfully), and the other competitions. It’s great to televise the USA Rugby stuff… but that will not monetize at this time, particularly with our competitions so diluted (i.e. Mens D1 College/Varsity Cup).

My math may be incorrect, and I assume a deal can be made to get 1/5th of the content of Aviva Premiership for the prorated amount (in this example, $80,000), but to obtain any real content over any extended period of time, it seems to me the costs will ALWAYS outweigh the revenue.  This is not to mention the salaries of The Rugby Channel employee’s and other costs.  Maybe we get ‘free’ content from England and Harlequins based on their RIM investments, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s mediocre.  Why are we paying to watch something with less quantitative and qualitative content than other providers we already pay for their bundled programs (i.e. NBCSN, ESPN, etc..) and also YouTube?

I realize these numbers are extremely ‘rough’ and cover only a fraction of what we might see on an Income statement, but the cost of content and operating costs must be a huge number compared to the number of subscriptions currently sold and forecasted.  I’d be glad to be proven wrong on this.

This entity ‘RIM’ which created ‘The Rugby Channel’ was created in the absence of any overarching plan by Nigel Melville and his ‘Board’, all of whom were obsequious to his every move.  And, we are paying for it now.  The Congress could have/should have taken control of this accountability deficit during the Melville years.  When we peel back the layers of RIM and TRC there is little substance.  Asking around about RIM, here is a quote I heard from a major sporting brands clothing maker regarding USA Rugby sponsorship:

“USA Rugby could not paint a picture that we could get our arms around”. 

Clearly they don’t understand RIM either.

During my research, I have learned as much as I could on RIM, and the Rugby Channel.  My assessment is that we are going to spend big time resources (i.e. money) on The Rugby Channel.  I’d just like to get an explanation of how the math works.  However, if The Rugby Channel is where RIM is ‘counting it’s eggs’, I would have expected TRC to have a strong showing at the NDS trade show.  That did not appear to be the case:

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I walked the show floor many times. This is exactly how The Rugby Channel booth looked during the entire NDS. This is the entity RIM is counting on for considerable revenue.

We have no strategic plan.  My assessment is that at this time, there is little to sell on USA Rugby. What sponsor in their right mind (other than pure generosity) would get in bed with this brand at this time. Earlier this year, I spoke with a senior executive member of Harlequins about their RIM investment who stated, “We don’t really know all that much about it, but figure it is a good way to get our toe into the USA market”.  This is no way a company with a “$20 Million ‘valuation'” should be spoken of.

The plan is apparently coming, and apparently it is comprehensive.  We need it. And we need people to execute it.  We have Payne; I hope the Congress has the gumption to look at their duty to review the Board of Director’s performance, and assess that each and every member is qualified, capable and the best to assist Payne in taking this massive task forward.

Other Notes:

  • Met Alev Kelter and Ryan Carlyle, two of the women’s Olympian’s. What a treat. I asked Alev if being a pro rugby player was a job. She said, ‘Heck no, I get to wear a t-shirt, shorts, sunblock and hangout with the greatest people in the world, my teammates’. That was pretty cool, and don’t shake Ryan’s hand if you aren’t ready for a bone crusher!
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    Never take for granted meeting an Olympian. Alev Kelter and Ryan Carlyle. We should be proud they wear Red, White, Blue.

  • The most important single person involved selecting USA Rugby’s leadership is the Chair of the nominating committee. Marni Vath.
  • Several congress members said ‘TR, I want to get on board with you, but I can’t as my living is dependent on my relationship with USA Rugby’. Fair enough
  • There was no overarching theme of the meeting. We need it.
  • There was little/no talk of national team performance. Unfortunate, but not surprising.
  • There are over 10 entities ready to pour big money into rugby here. They are all on the sidelines due to the PRO debacle, and lack of structure/plan in USA.  And, they’re coming anyway in due time – despite the PRO problem.
  • There is huge inequity in the paid coaches ranks.  7 to 1, male to female.  35% of our membership is female.
  • The Academy system, while exciting – will face a ‘come to Jesus’ time, particularly when some of the international academies related to the soon to be coming ‘Tier 1’ franchises appear.
  • USA Rugby has 100k members; USA Lacrosse has 500K.  This demonstrates how we have not increased comparatively to other sports. 
  • Drones are pretty cool to film your practices!
  • I was disappointed John Mitchell was not in attendance. He could add so much if we saw him in the community.
  • Growth in the number of coaches and referees at all levels is far outpaced by the growth of number of players. This has to effect our ‘quality of play’ in a negative way.
  • Author’s note:  Call me an ‘old boy’, but I find the interaction and mutual respect between men and women involved in USA Rugby to be fantastic.  It’s noticeable (to me anyway).

These are my assessments of the Rugby NDS and the state of things in certain areas of American Rugby. You probably won’t see anything like this from any other Board member (exception Chad Keck, Will Chang) as they were not present.

My next article will consist of some suggestions that I hope will be contained within our strategic plan.

Other articles I have written on these topics include:

  1. RWU Webcast: Tony Ridnell on USA Rugby, RIM, PRO Rugby, Accountability
  2. Analysis: Dan Payne @USARugby CEO Q&A. $1MM Revenue Shortfall??
  3. USAR Board of Directors: No Plan for 10 years, No Accountability.  Time to go! 
  4. PRO Rugby and the Melville/Latham Legacy. It’s not good. USAR Board of Directors needs the Swamp drained.

5 comments

  1. Tony,

    As promised, here is my note!

    We need to have a structure in place for both women’s and men’s collegiate competitions. I understand that USA Rugby released guidelines for what makes a Division I and II women’s program…one of the things that I thought was bogus was the tenure of the coach can have an effect on the classification.

    I think it is simple:

    There should be no Varsity Cup Championship.

    DI top 50 programs with relegation to DIA for the bottom 5

    DIA the next 120 Programs

    DII

    DIII

    But what makes a DII and DIII program, we sort of have to look at the NCAA model. If a college gives grants in aid to the athlete for playing Rugby, that college is a DI Rugby program. Then you look at the operating budgets provided by the college and then the associated funds raised by each program that will determine a Division II and Division III team. Tenure of the coach should have no bearing on what level they are at. Now, some programs get no financial help from the college/university but are still competitive for top level play. If there is financial grant in aid for playing Rugby, across all of Division I, and it’s promoted, the game will get promoted. Why did USA Rugby go from an Academic year season, to Autumn rather than Spring when they do not have to compete with Football?

    I think once you get the collegiate framework set in stone we need to look at the senior men’s club framework and establish whether we want a separate prog league that is under sanction by USA Rugby or to have a grassroots premiership just happen. If it’s the latter, then the structure requires a lot more work, and it could work with the OMBAC and the Huns, the issue we run into is building the relegation framework as it is not really clear as I saw it as a men’s player the last two seasons for Fort Bliss. We went from Probation directly to DII in the Rio Grande because of the player registration and not based on fixtures of the year we were on Probation. For the ’16-’17 Season the RGRU board relegated all of the Division II teams to Division III based on getting smashed by the Arizona Union in the regional playoffs since eternity.

    As far as a professional framework, I often forget that Professional Rugby is very young. What definitely stunted our growth in the sport was it no longer being an Olympic sport following our gold medal in 1924, then you add to the fact that the Rugby World Cup is only 30 years old as far as a competition is concerned, I see why we’re behind.

    National team compensation, what do our 7s players get paid from USA Rugby as the 7s team is a full time gig. The last available figure I was able to find was something maxed at 30k I think. A higher national team salary for 7s players. What is the compensation for the XVs side?

    National Team Structure, how much are we paying Friday and Mitchell? Friday obviously has embraced his position and lives in the United States. Mitchell is moving this year, but why was that not a part of deal when he signed on when Nigel was CEO. I’m new to Rugby, I’ve only played for three seasons and two separate clubs, but I’ve been following Rugby since 2005. I’ll be honest when I say I didn’t like how we competed under Tolkin, removing your Captain almost immediately once on ground for the World Cup tells me more about the coach than it does the player. Clever re-earned his Captaincy under Mitchell, Mitchell established the elite training squad…apparently we didn’t have one, that is bad as it means the HC has to go insane when trying to build up a side. I think there should be a direct connection between the Collegiate All American, U20, and JAA sides with the head national team coach. What are these coaches being paid?

    If you look at last year’s ARC, hell, having a well promoted 6 team championship was awesome…but that was almost as poorly executed as PRO. There had been an ARC is 2014, they had a full website, etc, but it was a four team competition…the new ARC was a 6 team competition and promoted on Facebook, twitter and by USA Rugby…but the old competition somehow still controlled the website. What does USA Rugby need to do to get either NBC to put national fixtures on live or re-aired the same day in prime-time…or ESPN for that matter as I think NBC has been a horrible shepherd for Rugby…the first year they had the CRC we had 6 hours on Saturday and 6 hours on Sunday of television on NBC itself. The last two years you’ve had much less.

    How do we get more players into Aviva, Guinness Pro 12, Top 14, and Super Rugby if we cannot get a professional premiership or league off the ground.

    DS said our board was amateur, well, he proved that he wasn’t worthy as a shepherd of our sport by treating vendors horribly and not paying them. I want USA Rugby to invalidate the last two years of his sanctioning agreement. Why hasn’t Mark Cuban been courted to help start a league, he has been a collegiate and senior men’s player in another life and he is a businessman. Why isn’t he on our board?

    One of the reasons why our Congress and Board have been without leaders is that men like you were needed. I’m glad you’ve come back to help be a voice. Our board and Congress need decisive leaders from both a Rugby and Business background.

    Funding, USA Rugby should not be leaning on the membership, they should be pushing money to the youth and collegiate games.

    And lastly, this is the criticism and all encompassing expose I desired from the Rugby Media. If you do not become a member of the Congress or the Board, I ask that you continue to be an honest broker for the Rugby Community in the United States.

    • “How do we get more players into Aviva, Guinness Pro 12, Top 14, and Super Rugby if we cannot get a professional premiership or league off the ground.”

      I tend to look at this issue as more of a HP issue than anything else. Professional Rugby is great and should ultimately be the goal but it also is in many instance prohibitively expensive in many regards. I’ve previously suggested looking at the National Rugby Championship structure in Australia as a solid template as to what should be done in the US in regards to addressing the high performance level above what club rugby can currently offer.

      It is a structure that has to exist within very limited financial constraints while encompassing many similar challenges any such competition would also face in the US e.g. travel etc.

      I personally believe the emphasis should first and foremost be about establishing an elite, high performance competition played in the spring/summer window that while initially amateur in regards to player payments places great emphasis on player development. Open to all athletes, be it from club or University Rugby squads could be selected as early as January for say a May kick off.

      Using expertise derived from places such a the OTC and NDA’s squad members are provided with uniform strength and conditioning programs that are regularly monitored throughout the lead in as well as nutritional guidance. Something many athletes seem to fail with.

      On top of that, an high emphasis on skills development would heavily feature.

      While this does appear to require significant commitment it could also be structured around players existing club and work/family commitments.

      Ideally, the maximum time commitment would be no more than 15 hours a week. Structured along the lines of 1 hour in the morning (say 5:30-6;30 gym based S&C) and 2 hours squad and skills development in the evening.

      In terms of structure, regarding the teams I tend to think that Rugby Utah is on the right track. The first thing that needs to be acknowledge is that you cannot reach everyone to start and due to necessity you need to keep numbers to no more than 8-10 or so squads. At the beginning.

      Part of this would involve identifying the strongest overall 8-10 regions/cities ideally split East and West. Split into two conferences.

      Initially opt for a straight 6-8 game regular season with top 2 from each moving forward to the finals. It’s short, it’s sharp but it would offer a much higher standard of play and entertainment. Importantly. it leaves room to grow.

      If RugbyCanada are willing to come to the party the CRC teams could also be utilized.

      Funding as always will be an issue. But clever and targeted marketing to the Rugby Community could go a long way to alleviating those pressures. PRO averaged a little over 1700 a game and we can all agree they largely failed to market the league effectively to the Rugby community at large in a manner that could be considered sufficient.

      Targeting the clubs across the playing sphere would garner greater results in my opinion.

      Not paying players (but covering their costs) would reduce costs and make it at least initially workable. Even if it only averaged the same as PRO, with the ultimate goal being to only initially cover costs it isn’t beyond impossible.

  2. Pingback: USA Rugby/Tony Ridnell Social Media Highlights 1.22.17 « Tony Ridnell

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