Reports regarding the issues with Professional Rugby Organization (PRO Rugby or PRO) and USA Rugby (USAR) are few and the truth behind the termination of contracts may never fully emerge but an analytical look at what has transpired over the past year may reveal what’s behind the current unpleasantness between PRO and USAR. Please keep in mind I am not an insider and the following is solely my assessment based on the facts that are out there; this opinion is developed from my training as a military intelligence analyst and not from education as a journalist.
It’s well known PRO does not have the best of relationships with many clubs across the country, the Glendale Raptors in particular. PRO did not take kindly to its players taking part in Glendale club games during the PRO season. It’s this conflict that I believe led to, or even began with, the issues at Infinity Park causing Denver to move their home field to the University of Denver. The first PRO game took place at Infinity Park between Denver and Ohio but broadcast rights could not be agreed upon and the historic game was not aired live.
It has been reported that PRO demanded exclusive operating rights for professional rugby in Canada and when Rugby Canada refused to grant those rights an agreement could not be made that would allow a team to be placed in Canada. When overtures to place a team in the US were made by UK based-Pro12 PRO denounced the move as detrimental to PRO Rugby but USAR’s chief executive Dan Payne, while showing strong support for PRO, did not firmly rebuke the idea.
The emergence of the Major Rugby Championship (MRC) poses an additional, if only perceived, threat to PRO’s hold on the US rugby market. While not currently sanctioned by USAR as a Club Championship the clubs participating are not exactly on PRO’s Christmas card list. The Austin Huns, Allen Griffins, New Orleans, Utah, and Glendale Raptors have come together to form this collection of elite clubs in order to play a higher caliber rugby on a regular basis. The MRC is currently primed to do what PRO couldn’t promise, to be a stable developing competition…case in point the operational closure of the San Francisco Rush. Additionally, many PRO players have allegiances to clubs like Austin and Glendale which directly conflicts with PRO’s interests in player availability; as mentioned above, players were still fulfilling their club obligations while playing for PRO.
So, that stated, my assessment is this; PRO wants to have exclusive professional rugby rights in the US as they wanted in Canada so as to best ensure it doesn’t lose money and has a successful product without competition. I believe PRO wanted USAR to agree to compel PRO contracted players to participate solely in PRO which it is unlikely Dan Payne and USAR would be willing to do. I think the termination of contracts was a move allowing PRO to rewrite those contracts with a clause preventing those under contract with PRO from participating in any competing endeavors such as club matches during the season or even to go so far as limit all participation unless granted approval through PRO.
Does this mean the end of PRO? No, not at all as previous reports state the competition is funded for a minimum of three years. The relative success the competition had in a rough inaugural season bodes well for the future so long as PRO doesn’t get in its own way.
There is plenty of room in the US for multiple competitions; if the UK can survive with Aviva and Pro12 in an area the size of New England I think the entirety of the US can fit a competition or three but something does need to be done. Either PRO needs to understand player loyalty to their club and partner with them or make it clear from the beginning and in a contract that playing in PRO will mean your loyalty is to your PRO team. PRO also needs to understand fans will come to the matches but communication is key, have a plan ahead of time, and make good on your promises or stop making promises.
I am a huge proponent of club evolution to professionalism as the Austin Huns have done; I would like to see our professional rugby look more like what the UK has and what we have here in our system. The Elite Club (professional) would be the pinnacle of the current division system (DI-DIV), maybe even a merger of two systems like the Cincinnati Wolfhounds and Cincinnati Kelts into one Elite Club…I am so very sorry to all Cincinnati ruggers if that’s blasphemy, please don’t kill me.
Either way, it’s the Christmas season, time for all of us to get along, let by-gones be by-gones, and enjoy some great rugby this holiday season.