Professional governance can make all rugby in America successful. Amateur, Pro, & International 5

The myth there is not a strong appetite for rugby at a local level has been put to final rest.  The Seattle Seawolves of the newly formed US Major League Rugby (MLR) have completely changed the landscape on what the American audience will come to expect at our high profile events.

No More Excuses about ‘Butts in Seats’

With 1,800 season tickets sold out prior to the first match last Sunday night vs. San Diego Legion, and full houses of 5,000 for that match and last night’s Glendale Raptor encounter, there can be no more excuse about ‘butts in seats’.  SeaWolves GM and Co-Founder Shane Skinner has practically single handedly shown the American rugby community what can be done.


Aladdin Schirmer rises in front of an engaged Seattle SeaWolves audience in the inaugural US Major League Rugby match at Starfire Sports, Tukwila WA (April 22, 2018). Note the amount of licensed SeaWolves gear on the audience. First game in the Team’s history.

Impact on the USA Rugby Community

The last few weeks have seen tremendous debate in the community about American championships: formats, venues, etc…  The D1A semifinal location and seeding switches, Iowa Central Community College not being permitted to play in CRCs despite qualifying are only two of the discussions.

Changes in D1A College semifinals were made due to commercial, “butts in seats” reasons. After hearing Conference representative Paul Keeler discuss the reasoning behind the moves (The GRIND Podcast, April 26, 2018), many people supported the decision which was initially vilified on social media

Brand has never been more important

This will not be the first, nor the last, time the American rugby community settle for some minor inconveniences in order to take our amateur ethos into the professional era. Let’s not fool ourselves, College is still amateur, AND it is played in the professional, i.e., “commercial”, era.  The term “Brand” has never been more important. Another example of such an inconvenience are the commercial breaks disguised as water breaks by MLR Broadcasters, ESPN, CBSSN, etc. Media money will be the driver for MLR, and will be the energy behind ‘growing the game’ and exposure on a national front.

Recommendations for Incoming Leadership

The new USA Rugby leadership (both CEO and the at least 5 new Board members that will be seated in coming months) should completely re-evaluate the process for awarding event locations. Consider the ‘Bid’ process for hosting such events isn’t working.

Club 7s

For example, the National Club 7s Championships, which I attended last year, has significant commercial potential. That August tournament could be placed where a significant walk up audience could be expected.  A State fair (always held in Aug/Sept) would be a perfect location. The event would still get its anemic attendance from ‘the community’ but could draw enormous numbers of potential new fans. There were fewer fans in 2017 in Blaine MN than would attend the same event 30 years prior (I have experienced both in person).

Keep events in the same spot for a 5 year period. Build a fan base, even if constricted to that local community. In the Club 7s, USA Rugby has a potential money maker that could become a televised event in a few years. This compares to the money drag and ‘reinvent the wheel’ status yearly when constantly moving events. The level of competitiveness rivals that of Hong Kong, even though the skill level certainly does not. The games are exciting, like the HSBC Circuit, just not as skilled. This could be an event that regularly sees over 5,000 people thru a weekend, if a professional annual set up were engaged.

The MLR is a professional league, with marketing money – regardless how paltry in its inaugural season. Comparisons to USA Rugby/RIM events are not apples to apples – but regardless of title, expectation levels on commercialization and attendance must and will rise.

USA Rugby’s new governance must thoroughly review the hosting process for rugby events in this country. Never again can there be the disgraceful attendance to Eagles matches such as San Antonio in 2017, and more recently in Fullerton, CA for the Chile match in Q1. Let’s attribute that to the mistakes of “RIM 1.0”

The entire community must realize that in this era, money is a dominating force in growing the game. That is true on the youth level or rising into the MLR level. At the pro level, the amateur level, and most importantly at the NGB level we must reassess the way we ‘go to market’.

It is critical “we” get this right. Which brings up another question. Who is “we”?


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