Anyone following the state of rugby in America over the past 12 months should be familiar with the Austin Huns Rugby Club. They have raised the awareness level of their ‘brand’ by strong and professional use of social media, and their announcements about ‘Going Professional’ has peaked significant interest.
I’ve been wanting to learn more of the club; and the combination of the USA Rugby semi-annual Congress meeting, and an ARC contest pitting the Eagles against Brazil in Austin created the perfect opportunity last weekend. I’ll write more on the Congress meeting in a separate article, and I’ll leave the Eagles performance to others, but I’m delighted to report on my experience with the Huns and the rugby community in Austin, TX.
Immediately upon arrival at the hotel on the Friday night, I ran into Thierry Daupin, now the GM of “Huns Rugby Management (aka HRM)” who asked me to dinner. Thierry and I had met at the most recent “Chicago Weekend”, and I recall how pleasantly surprised I was to hear Thierry speak of their club plans, their business plan (i.e., monetizing, creating sustainability), and their desire to share their best practices with others, and vice versa to create an entity that would raise the bar on ‘professionalism’. We jumped into his U-Haul rental which contained all sorts of Huns licensed gear, and set ups for the various events the Huns were involved in across Austin over the weekend. On the way to Salt Lick BBQ (a ‘do not miss’ if in Austin), I learned that Thierry is a full time, paid GM for HRM, and he began to explain the vision of one of the three partners of HRM, Richard Osborn. It should be noted that HRM is a separate and distinct entity from Austin Huns RFC. Huns RFC supports the club and it’s activities (youth, etc..); HRM supports the club, in addition to handling the professional side of the ledger.
Austin Huns – High Aspirations
I learned of the Huns aspirations regarding its brand not only in the USA, but their quest to be one of the World’s most recognized rugby clubs within a decade. The great news for all of us, is that they are in the beginning phases of actually doing what it might take to achieve that exclusive recognition.
Coincident to our dinner, Thierry showed me a copy of a letter that would be released the next day announcing the now well known ‘Major League Rugby (MLR)’ of which the Huns are a founding member. Some articles have been published on the league…
My interest was now piqued, and I peppered Thierry with questions over dinner.
Major League Rugby
I’d heard the rumors, and it was great to be at the epicenter of the news. The league will start with 9 clubs covering a very large geography. The league is owned jointly by the 9 participants, and each club must meet certain minimum financial/event management/etc… requirements. The participants pride themselves on being ‘like-minded’, a refreshing show of ‘partnership’ and community which contrasts dramatically with the first iteration of the attempt at professional rugby in the USA. Each club involved has set up a separate legal entity, governing the professional side of each club. Having some inside information to the league and it’s ‘ethos’, I found it remarkable this week the immediate negativity towards the league and it’s intent.
No California, No East Coast?
Articles, tweets, and podcasts were published asking questions like, “why no California teams, why no East Coast teams, etc..” which to the casual observer seem logical questions. The answer to this question is that no teams from California or East Coast either could, or wanted to meet some of the requirements the teams in the league have committed to. There are teams seeking to enter the league, but wanted to wait to ‘get it together’ a bit more. I find this a mature and logical progression to potential success.
My recommendation to everyone in the community is,;
Lose the negativity, support MLR and its national growth over the next few years. The possibility of a world scale sports company taking on this league is real, and we should support these 9 brave ‘owner‘s’ who are putting it on the line to create the next phase of club rugby (i.e. professional) in the USA.
The league has openings for up to 24 teams nationally. They are smart to keep it to those initially who are ready to make the significant commitment it will take to get this league off the ground.
A Necessary Injection of Inertia for American Club Rugby
Club Rugby at a national level has literally been abandoned since the more structured territorial days and the initial Super League of the late ‘90’s. This has created the need for clubs to create their own regional competitions (i.e., ARP, PRP, now CAL Cup, etc..), which serves the local players/clubs well, but does little to truly move the dial to increase the level of play on the field nationally. My thoughts on a top-tier competition needed throughout the country are well documented, and while the regional competitions serve a strong purpose, the level of our top players having to play at a substandard level to what is possible in a professional league is marginalized. The injection of money could be the game changer as the MLR clubs have committed to each other to raise the professionalism on/off the field, and increase ‘community’ through youth initiatives, etc.. They are also sharing best practices of marketing, negotiating with local municipalities, etc.. This is the most significant difference between MLR, and the failed Super League. The possibility of monetization, and sustainable finances.
Each team in the league is now a separate entity from the amateur clubs from which they were spawned. It’s important to note the financial commitment the 9 teams have signed on for.
Rugby – Austin Style
Driving back to the hotel from Salt Lick BBQ, I noticed some floodlights on a field in the distance and asked if that was ‘Friday Night’ football. Thierry said it was football or soccer, but as we drove past we saw a few hundred people on the sideline of what turned out to be a high school rugby match featuring Westlake HS (a single school club) vs. Rock Rugby (a club w/ players from multiple schools). This was a precursor to what was going to be a magical Saturday.
Saturday morning, I woke early to speak with several congress members before their semiannual meeting and was met by a new Facebook friend from the Austin Huns, Russ Newth. Russ is one of the Hun Old Boys, and former social chair, and was gracious in making a point to introduce me to literally dozens of people involved with the Huns at all levels.
First stop Saturday – Youth
Our first stop on the day was a municipal park where a youth tournament with teams from all over TX participating. I came to learn that 58 youth games would be played that day in Austin! Of note, was the ever present ‘branding’ of the Austin Huns. They have their own youth programs, with the Huns brand. The 7 year olds literally were that same sky blue/white kit that the elite teams play with. Huns gear is sold at each location I attended.
I was slightly concerned to see the young girls playing with young boys in ‘tackle’ competition, but they all seemed to be enjoying it. It’s fine by me.
Second stop – Huns Field
Next up was a trip to 4107 Nixon Lane, aka “Huns Field”. I had watched the YouTube broadcast of Huns v. OMBAC a few weeks before and was excited to visit this 34 acre facility owned and being designed exclusively for rugby. We were met by Richard Osborn (having already seen him at the youth tournament) who took us on a tour of the facility. Osborn’s equity partner in HRM, Chris Bugge was also there sporting his new titanium knee while refereeing, all over the age of 70! There was a HS girls tournament being played on the ground. College coaches of Women’s teams were present speaking to the various teams.
I heard a story of how Osborn and Bugge bought this land 10 years ago and literally spent the first two years each weekend on tractor’s (proudly displayed in their ‘tractor farm’) pulling out Mesquite trees to create a playable surface. Based on what I had witnessed on social media, I thought the ground would be more ‘built out’, but the potential of this facility is easily seen.
Currently there is the main field (shown in photo), and one alternate field. There is space for a ‘stadium’ in an area yet to be developed, and Richard explained the partnership they have with a French company “GL Sports”, who literally build ‘pop up’ 5K-10K seat facilities. The plans and visual depictions of the plan for Huns Field, is as inspiring as it aggressive. Each team in the MLR has been introduced to this company to assist in providing playing environments that can be described in better fashion than a ‘bad HS football game’, a depiction that too often exists. Osborn shared his ideas of literally creating an Academy style facility, complete with educators for those players requiring such support. They currently have a small kid’s park, and will put up something more elaborate when construction of the main ground begins.
I asked some questions about ‘sustainability’ of both the Club and the League. Osborn seems to always be thinking of ways to monetize the club and the facility. He told me of the Sunglass company sponsorship he obtained with the understanding that the vast majority of spectators face the sun during Huns home games. Partnerships abound with people/company’s throughout the city. His vision of creating ‘professional’ style rugby events; concessions, parking, toilets, medical staff, grandstands, live webcasts, etc… with the understanding that only with a professional presentation can we expect a greater viewing audience in order to grow the sport.
Third Stop – Austin Blacks Field
Our third rugby event of the day was a few miles away from Huns field at the home of the Austin Blacks RFC. I learned of a bitter cross town rivalry between Huns/Blacks that is exacerbated by Huns being winless in that derby for the past 45 years at the D1 level! Coincidentally, this year’s contest was won this weekend by the Huns, with a resounding victory over the Blacks – lending significant credence to the prospects that the Huns on field performance will continue to improve.
The Huns old boys had a fixture, alongside a mini Red River Conference College event featuring UT, A&M, Baylor and TCU. I met some very committed and passionate college coaches, all of whom very proud of the ‘inclusivity’ of the conference members and the degree to which each member wants to ‘cooperate’ to create ‘more, and better rugby’.
Last Stop – Dell Diamond
Finally, the marquis event of the weekend started in the late afternoon at Dell Diamond, pitting the USA Eagles v Brazil in an ARC (America’s Rugby Championship) match. Driving into the ground, the first thing noticeable was the large tailgate presence in the parking lots. Walking thru the festivities, the Huns had at least 500 at their tailgate; the Blacks the same. I met some people at these tailgates that I had seen at one or more of the functions (youth, women’s collegiate, old boys, men’s college) throughout the day.
I was experiencing a true rugby ‘community’ first hand. This is the first club I have seen who’s youngest players wear the same kit as the elite/D1 teams, and are integrated into the club portfolio. All the participants seemed aware of the clubs aspirations… to allow for participation at any/all levels, and at the same time create the professionalism/monetization that will allow the funding of the lower level programs. Hopefully, the extensive marketing work that the Huns and soon the other members of the league will be forced to consider, will pay off putting ‘butts in seats’, and allowing the development of top tier competition throughout the nation.
Leadership – Dan Payne style
On Sunday, I attended (again with Russ Newth) the AGM of the Texas Rugby Union. Kirk Tate (with admin assistance from Wendy Young) drove a solid agenda, but it was unfortunate that a vast majority of clubs were not represented at this meeting. Of note, was a leadership display by USAR CEO Dan Payne that should be made public. Payne was as sick as any human being could be throughout the entire weekend. I saw him on the Sunday morning at the hotel, sweat pouring off his face. Two hours later, sitting at the TRU I witnessed Payne walk in the room having diverted his taxi on the way to the airport, to come and address the attendees of the meeting to thank them for their volunteering and commitment serving rugby in the country. This is the type of hands on leadership the entire country will benefit from.
Quality of Play
The people involved in MLR are well aware the quality of play on the field will have to significantly improve alongside the improved professional presentations of the events. I hope that top American players (currently not able to land a contract overseas) in the future lean towards participating in a national competition such as MLR. As other clubs/geographies not currently named to the league (i.e. some top East Coast and California Clubs) are added (hopefully), this league could shape up into the entity where are top club players can compete at a high level week in/week out, being trained by professional coaches in professional type environments. If this league can ‘make it’, even for a few years, and show growth and promise, there are certainly some sports business entities that could assist with finance and resources to propel this league to higher levels.
Success will not happen overnight…it will be a slog. The best thing that rugby community can do is support this venture and the men/women putting their financial backing into it, with the hopes of developing the community of rugby in the USA all the way from youth to elite. They have answers to a lot of the questions being raised on social media. We should be patient. There is the problem of Schoninger and PRO, an issue I think will be moot by the time MLR kicks the first ball off in 2018.
- Facility: Any club with significant aspirations should have a ‘facility’ it can control and attempt to monetize. The Huns are very open that they will share their plans/ideas with anyone interested.
- Weather: Good weather helps. I thought of my son in Seattle on a rainy February night as I watched the kids running around in short sleeved rugby jersey in Texas.
- Inclusivity: Inclusivity must be the Order of the Day. Having met Thierry Daupin in Chicago, and now Richard Osborn in Austin – the overriding theme of their conversations is ‘inclusivity’. It’s remarkable to experience, and very refreshing. As a rugby playing nation we have experienced ‘exclusivity’ for far too long from our top leadership. The likes of Osborn and Payne on the scene are significant cause for optimism.
Thanks to everyone in the rugby community in Austin who took such great care of me last week. I’ll write soon on my thoughts of the aforementioned Congress meeting and its outcomes.