I think if you would have told US and Canadian hockey fans back in the 1960’s and early 70’s that by 2017 there would be 24 out of the 31 National Hockey League (NHL) teams (NHL expands into Las Vegas in 2017) in the US with a team in Arizona and two in Florida I believe they would have laughed at you. Add to that by telling them there would be an ongoing drought for those 7 Canadian teams which has kept Lord Stanley’s Cup in the US for 23 consecutive years and counting; you might actually get put in the loony bin. My point dear rugby fan is this…what may seem impossible now is in fact highly likely.
There will be stable professional rugby in the US even if PRO fails as it appears it will likely do. The steps towards professionalism in the US are slow and it should be; rugby in Europe has been built over many decades of club rugby that only professionalized as recently as 1995; yes, you read that correctly. Common belief is that rugby was born in 1823, it took 175 years for the sport to become professionalized. The Stanley Cup has resided exclusively in the US for a longer period of time than rugby has been a professional sport. Chew on that for a minute and if you’re not a hockey fan go ask one…its ok, I’ll wait.
Now that you’ve digested those previous thoughts and are ready to discuss how rugby should grow into a professional game in the US I’ll continue on with what I believe is a very simple plan for the growth of professional rugby in the US and North America as a whole. It all begins with USA Rugby (USAR), The Rugby Channel (TRC), and you…the fan. The plan is very simple in theory but I’m certain is rather complicated in execution with a budget of approximately $10 million and likely multiple competing agendas; however, despite the many things I’m not privy to I know this is a solid plan.
First and foremost USAR must be committed to the development of professional rugby in the US. Let me add this, Rugby Canada (RCU), the Mexican Rugby Federation (FMR), and Rugby Americas North (RAN) are more than welcome to join in as Canada are finding their rugby legs, Mexico is developing quickly, and various Caribbean nations (i.e. Bermuda) are becoming hot beds of rugby. The focus however is on USAR and their commitment to professional rugby, giving our internationals a reason to stay stateside so that USAR controls access to our Eagles; too often our best are not playing for the Eagles because of overseas obligations. We need to keep them home while giving kids an opportunity to make a living playing rugby instead of football, soccer, or basketball.
The interest in Sevens has never been higher and USAR needs to capitalize on that. Grand Prix Rugby Sevens actually has a chance to succeed and with buy in from USAR and the many clubs around the country Grand Prix can become a tournament of Club 7’s in each Competitive Region (CR). These tournaments can be tied to club matches with the host (i.e. Austin Huns) playing a XV’s match the day after the two-day 7’s tournament concludes making it a full rugby weekend and event.
The clubs play a huge role in this plan and are lumped into USAR being committed. Clubs who wish to turn professional must declare their intent, provide USAR a plan for professionalization, and agree to being formed into a regional competition. I would envision several regional competitions like the American Rugby Premiership (ARP), California Cup, and Major Rugby Championship (MRC) becoming our countries version of Europe’s Top 14, Aviva Premiership, and Pro 12 with something similar to their Champions and Challenge Cup tournaments being formed as the competitions grow. Initially I imagine there would be a mix of fully professional, semi-professional, and amateur clubs competing with all non-pro clubs working toward full professionalism. It might be lopsided at times but have you seen the Italian teams in the Pro 12? Ouch.
The Rugby Channel plays a vital role in this plan as they would become the primary media broadcast forum. With so much talent out their already broadcasting games TRC has the resources to tie many of the amateur broadcasters into a single network to cover such a large country with so many matches. Ideally TRC would also broadcast small college and select high school games as well but that’s a debate for another day.
Then there is you…the fan. We must support these competitions as I know we all would as well as TRC troubles and all. The growth of rugby depends on its fan base and while I supported PRO Rugby (my team is the Aviators) I have always felt the proper way toward professionalism is not by creating a fan base for teams dropped into an area but providing those passionate fan bases for the Glendale Raptors, Cincinnati Wolfhounds, Cleveland Crusaders, Dallas Reds, Chicago Griffins, Seattle Saracens, and San Francisco Golden Gate a venue for expressing their fandom on a national scale. I could have filled this post with other clubs, hundreds of them, but they must show intent to turn pro. There is nothing wrong with clubs that wish to remain an amateur/recreational club but for those who want to turn pro…now is your time and we as fans will support you, must support you, and you will succeed. No matter the venue, be it a 6,000 seat stadium or a cow pasture turned pitch with grass hill seating fans will come, jerseys will be purchased, faces will be painted, and before we know it the frustration of PRO will be long forgotten.