In a calamity that could only be described as “Melvillean” in nature, USA Rugby head coach John Mitchell has seemingly made his 4 year commitment/contract disappear. The announcement of Mitchell signing on as “Executive of Rugby” for the Super Rugby Bulls franchise really has come as no surprise, as rumors have been circulating to this effect for months.
I understand that “sports is a business”, what I don’t understand is how people that sign 4 year contracts and ‘commit’ to take a national team through a complete Rugby World Cup cycle, simply get to walk away. Rumors were already circulating approximately two months ago when USAR CEO Dan Payne requested that Mitchell domicile in the United States. Mitchell has lived in Pietermaritzburg, RSA during his tenure as USAR Men’s XV Coach and has rarely been seen at any non USA Eagle events that should mandate his presence.
Mitchell’s Departure is certainly a relief for Payne and the USAR Organization
I am sure there is relief in Boulder, CO (USAR HQ) now that USAR is out from under yet another bloated contract where the ROI was questionable. Yes, the Eagles played well in the ARC, but that tournament is not exactly a high profile international event. Sources have advised that Mitchell’s contract was $250,000 for 16-17 weeks of required participation/attendance each year. The Eagles have raised the standard, certainly since the RWC2015 horror, and 5 wins in a row should be celebrated, but these announcements are a win/win for both Mitchell and USA Rugby. There does not seem to be any discussion of a contract ‘buy out’, but perhaps Payne let that slide due to other issues he held no leverage on (i.e. residence request, etc…).
As USAR searches for a new coach, I would ensure that he or she resides in the country and have metrics set for his/her participation at events, not only recruiting/evaluating/motivating players but also as the spokesperson for elite levels of USA Rugby around the country, personally impacting the growth of the game. This job should be held sacred within our rugby community. It should be the most highly coveted position in USA Rugby, and certainly held by individuals who respect the commitment it will take to succeed in this job, not used as yet another stepping stone for a foreign coach.
I’m fine with Mitchell leaving. I recall my excitement of his hiring, the fairy tale ending I dreamed of for both parties. I envisioned some Eagle World Cup success, and Mitchell resurrecting his career accordingly. Less than two years later, disappointment as USAR has once again been used as a stepping stone in someone else’s career. As a former player, the absentee coach concept didn’t work for me. The lack of commitment to physically appear in the USA and create a legacy for himself (after nothing short of a tumultuous career in every role he has assumed as a coach) was extremely disappointing. I understand he’s married with three children. That is wonderful. My suggestion – don’t take the job if you cannot commit to it. Or, getting back to Melville – don’t offer it. Who knows what Melville’s expectations were, but in supporting the ‘we must do something big’ theory, the hiring of Mitchell fit right in.
I am sure Payne would agree that getting out from the Mitchell contract is nothing short of a blessing. Way too much was paid for far too little commitment from Mitchell. Payne now gets to put his stamp on his organization in naming a new coach; and I am sure proper expectations will be set. Personally, if it were a business setting I would have extricated Mitchell from anything to do with the Eagles again after the announcement yesterday, but apparently Mitchell is going to stay on and coach thru the June RWC qualifiers. This continuity is best for the players and the continuity of the team.
The Melville Legacy and what USAR must do to extricate itself!
This article is not about John Mitchell. It’s about the continued effect of ‘The Melville Legacy’ and how it still effects us today, and what we MUST do to effect an entirely new path.
My recent rugby travels introduced me to a gentleman who self-described himself as “Nigel Melville’s closest friend in America”. I decided to use that entree to ask some more questions, and the outcome was something to the effect of ‘Nigel’s biggest downfall was that he was the eternal optimist’. Having thought on this for a while, the issues currently bogging down USA Rugby (i.e. RIM, The Rugby Channel, the never-ending PRO saga, etc..) all came from Melville’s sense that “We have to do something big!, We need to create a huge impact!”. The eternal optimist. And, it appears that Melville got the likes of Chang, Latham, Keck, etc… to buy into the grandiose ideas such as the unvetted RIM and TRC. The magnitude of the Mitchell (a former All Black AND All Black head coach) contract, and the complete debacle surrounding PRO Rugby add to the ‘we have to do something big’ narrative.
Where does USAR Stand today?
So, where does that leave us today? Mitchell is gone. The likes of Doug Schoninger and PRO Rugby are fading fast (and lucky for all the USAR Board members who approved/signed that contract who may get away with not being outed for negligence, or sheer foolishness), so Payne is getting some runway now to play offense. However, we still have the likes of RIM and TRC as Melville legacy items.
My questioning of RIM and TRC has yet to be met with any satisfactory answer. I can only imagine David Sternberg and Chad Keck visiting with NBC Sports executives the past few weeks, literally begging for NBC to allow TRC to have some scraps of content for TRC to broadcast. Remember the TRC promise to bring you all USA games? Check that – it won’t be happening.
My assessment is The Rugby Channel has nowhere to go without changing its model/audience significantly. RIM was not included and had zero participation in the enormous deal that NBC announced with World Rugby earlier this week, so I continue to question the necessity/cost/mindshare of this organization. Remember, RIM was formed because ‘potential sponsors wouldn’t answer our calls’. For me, if we had the right people calling with a compelling value proposition potential sponsors would come running.
My Board Interview
As many know, I was nominated for a Board seat for the August cycle. My interview with the nominating Chair, Marni Vath could not have gone worse. The first 5 minutes I spent telling her of my experience at the Champions Cup quarterfinal in the UK followed by some learnings from a highly educational trip to the Hong Kong 7’s. I now have some concrete ideas for fund-raising and sponsorship, getting people/organizations with their particular interest to engage financially (i.e. in addition to Men’s 7’s philanthropy that exists now). It’s comprehensive and involves a ‘networking ground game’, and I am confident we solve a lot of problems with my program. As I was beginning to discuss these ideas, Marni advised that there would be no way she could recommend me for further consideration because I was too ‘divisive’. I found this an interesting description, as all I have done is attempt to learn the landscape, meet people, and affect some accountability all of which I consider myself to have been moderately successful. If asking questions is ‘divisive’, sign me up.
The remainder of the call consisted of me attempting to discuss RIM, TRC, PRO, RWC2018 with Marni, and she gave me her assessment that getting involved in discussion like that is ‘more operational in nature and not under the purview of a Director’. She used that phrase on several occasions, i.e. “operational in nature”. She also advised her pride in taking what she considers a ‘unique’ view of what a Board should look like, as well as the Directors themselves.
I could only think to myself; The Board created RIM, TRC, PRO debacle, etc., yet the Chairman of the Nominating committee feels that these issues are operational in nature and not under the purview of the Board or its Directors. I thought, ‘what the hell are we talking about then?’
It was clear to me that Marni was not aware of the treacherous position of TRC, RIM, and the massively negative effect PRO has had on the top level play in this country, etc… and she certainly didn’t want to discuss any of it. I wonder what those vested in The Rugby Channel are thinking now after the NBC announcement. Perhaps she didn’t want to admit that the recent Board selections, particularly during the Melville reign, are the responsibility of her Board nominating committee and are culprits in the creation of these entities that has caused the massive overspend, lack of revenue generation, and well-documented poor Board performance.
A subsequent conversation with another congress member yielded the information that Marni on private calls later described me as ‘hostile’ during my interview, and ‘progressing my own agenda’. I wouldn’t describe my behavior as hostile, but more of being completely astonished at the fact that a person with self described views on ‘what a Board should look like’, and having little to no knowledge of the carnage that the nominating committee appointees have created was in charge of this nominating process and interviewing me. I was disappointed more than anything. I recall spending 20% of the call proselytizing for the likes of several others to be awarded this Board seat. No need to mention names.
I had entered the call very excited to speak of some ideas I constructed during the Europe/Hong Kong trip. There is a direct correlation between the support and involvement of the major benefactors of the Men’s 7s team, and the success on the field. There is significant accountability that exists up and down the Men’s 7’s hierarchy, and it is impressive. The performance speaks for itself. I believe that there are groups of people who would/could form to create similar philanthropic groups such as that which exists in the Men’s 7’s program. It works. We can create similar groups that have vested interested in each other’s success for each ‘silo’ of interest (e.g., HSAA’s, Women’s programs, Men’s XVs, U 20’s, etc…). It will take a huge ‘ground game’ of networking, but it can be done. This would increase the amount of philanthropic funds that the Union’s program’s receive, but is the key to ‘bringing people together’ that is so often talked about.
It is also clear that USA Rugby’s presence globally (with the exception of the on the field performance of the Men’s 7s) is suspect. We need ambassadors (rugby/business leaders) who can work formally on behalf of USAR utilizing individual networks/contacts to create more financial opportunities for the Union. Most importantly, these ambassadors would be tasked with targeted and focused ‘missions’ where any contact/opportunity can take on significantly increased value. When I suggested I (along with numerous others I named) could perform such a role, perhaps this is when Marni felt I was forwarding my own agenda.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t feel RIM and TRC should be dismantled. I do feel they should be evaluated by an independent group regarding why they exist, and whether they should continue to exist. To be clear, there is not a person I have met around the world (including those who have invested in RIM) who can explain to me with optimism a story of a profitable future for RIM. Not one person. As stated before, with the world’s quality on field content gobbled up by major networks, The Rugby Channel must significantly change it’s model for financial success. I am not complaining about the content; it’s acceptable, the problem is it just won’t draw many more subscribers than the 8,000 or so that currently exist and nowhere near what I understand to be ‘break even’. One draw to TRC subscribers was the ‘exclusive’ broadcasts of USA games. The NBC announcement nullifies that.
Rugby Business Executives Association (RBEA)
I am excited about the ‘Advisory Council’ that George Henderson and Dan Payne have created in the recently announced Rugby Business Executives Association (RBEA). This group’s first meeting is in San Diego prior to one of the RWC qualifiers vs. Canada. I consider this a do-not-miss opportunity, and will relish the opportunity to openly discuss the challenges facing American Rugby with the likes of Chang, Keck, etc… who will be present on a panel.
Mitchell is headed to Pretoria, PRO is done. TRC will fade after millions of dollars of investment, and the success or failure of RIM still lies in the balance with little support and/or understanding from anyone outside of the key players. All this founded on the Melville ethos of ‘we must do something big’.
After this depressing experience surrounding my Board interview, I took a few weeks off from rugby business. It’s quite overwhelming to realize the amateurism that still exists in the administration of our Union. Being told by the nominating chair that my thinking is ‘too operational in nature’ and the problems of “RIM, TRC, and PRO do not come under a Directors purview” took me a few weeks to come to grips with. I’ve been now labelled as divisive, and progressing my own agenda. All I’ve done is use my professional experience to ask reasonable questions about what drives USAR off the field, primarily around the financial issues, why we are in this tragic state, and what can we do about it. I’ve asked questions and received very few satisfactory answers. What I do know is that predictions made 18 months ago regarding the financial wherewithal of TRC, and RIM are certainly coming true. Marni calls it divisive, I call it the truth.
Other articles I’ve written on this subject:
- Analysis: Dan Payne @USARugby CEO Q&A. $1MM Revenue Shortfall??
- PRO Rugby and the Melville/Latham Legacy. It’s not good. USAR Board of Directors needs the Swamp drained.
- A Letter to USA Rugby Congress re: RIM, PRO, Eagles, etc..
- A Letter to all USA Rugby Congress Members. From Tony Ridnell