I had the pleasure of interviewing Gavin who talked about the big family atmosphere, professional rugby and Doug Schoninger, running the Wanderers like a professional club and the benefit of being a Domestic Non Profit Corporation.
Their overall approach to developing rugby in south Florida is remarkable and if you’re even remotely interested in building or reshaping a rugby club into a powerful youth base organization to grow your future then this is a must read.
Rugby Nation USA (RN): Rugby is a growing sport in the US as we reestablish our rugby roots; what’s your rugby background and why Weston?
Gavin McLeavy (GM): Yes, it’s really growing. South Florida has seen teams pop up all over Broward and Miami Dade County in the last few years. At Okapi Wanderers RFC we have 26 coaches and 9 administrators from all over the world; Argentina, the UK and Ireland, France, and then a smattering of southern hemisphere countries are represented too. I played Rugby League in the North of England as a kid and then traveled around playing for different Rugby Union teams in the likes of Spain and the Caribbean. As I’m from the grim end of England I developed an addiction for interesting and exotic locations and nice weather. Weston being a 20 minute drive to Miami and Fort Lauderdale beaches was a no brainer.
RN: How would you describe the structure of your organization?
GM: Bottom heavy (youth focused) is the idea and we are getting there. We have between 2 to 3 coaches per age group and a parent as a team manager for logistics and non-coaching work. When we first formed the club, we noticed that many clubs struggled because they focused on senior men’s teams or High School ages but didn’t have a long term youth program in place; consequently, these teams run around every year trying to find 20 or more players willing to play a game that have no idea how to play. Youth is what will feed the club quality players in the long run, so we decided to go the slow and methodical route. We also saw that often-times an individual coach would start a club, and, almost immediately, be up to his eyeballs in admin; so much so that they wouldn’t be able to coach properly (Interruptions by parents asking about kit, fields, dues, game times etc) so we asked the parents to get involved to spread the work load. Just like any good business, we try to put the right people in the correct place and let them do their job; those folks who wanted to help just a little bit would organize something simpler, again so the coach could focus on guiding the team during a game. It seems simple but who can see how a game is being played and fill water bottles at the same time?
For those that wanted to roll up their sleeves we have them coordinate bigger projects like the website being updated, social media, accounting, budgeting, etc. Social media is a daily task, with training cancellations, uploading pictures from games, videos, and anything that has direct correlation with the club activities; this alone needs a massive amount of man (or, mostly, woman) hours: we post everything across multiple platforms as well as keeping parents up-to-date with Whatsapp groups for each division. The time-investment creates an interest in the community which in turn grows your club.
So now we have divisions in all age groups from U8 through Old boys. The Old boys make up the core of our coaches. This has allowed us to create a big base of kids being coached by people that know what they are doing, are happy to be involved as their kids are playing and get to play themselves a few times a year and relive their youth! It has helped to create a real family atmosphere that so many players from around the world remember from their own home-clubs. What’s really exciting is that this year about 10 of our Varsity players that will age out; some will go off to college but those that stick around will be the base of our newest project, the Men’s U20s.
RN: Who are the leaders of your club?
GM: Myself as the head coach and founder.
Matthew Hayden coaches the Men’s team and founder.
Mariana Gallo general manager and founder that coordinates the team managers and Social Media.
Mariano Gallo founder.
In all we have 26 coaches, 9 team managers and countless volunteers who work tirelessly – and that’s just scratching the surface in terms of club leadership. It’s a real team effort!
We have created the structure based on RFU guidelines for the rest of the organization.
RN: The Wanderers seem to have grown out of nowhere; how long have the Okapi Wanderers been around?
GM: We started in October 2014 when another local club that some of us helped to start decided they didn’t want a high school age team. We had about 32 kids from all ages that had already been playing Rugby 2 or 3 years, didn’t want to stop playing but didn’t have anywhere to play. There has always been a small Rugby community in Weston but nothing cohesive; we wanted to build something that would last.
RN: You have one of the most expansive youth structures I’ve seen; 6 youth squads ranging U-8/U-10/U-12/U-14/Jr Varsity/Varsity and 3 adult sides. How do you recruit?
GM: It really comes down to creating an atmosphere that people want to be involved with. We make sure that it’s all about having fun at the U12 level and below. Then when they get to U14 we turn up the pressure and the Varsity guys are treated almost like professionals. The last summer our director of coaching held coaching clinics and we gave fitness programs to the varsity division to get them fit .We are trying to get the culture to be involved all year round with the club , so players do not migrate to other sports; we get involved with the community by taking the children to work on different community projects.
One such project involved our Varsity players studying for a coaching course with World Rugby so they could spend their summer volunteering for our Rugby Summer camp. We were approached by the Weston YMCA because kids were asking for a rugby program. Much to our surprise it wasn’t our players, it was just other kids that had seen Rugby on TV and wanted to try it out. So we set up the summer camp. The YMCA promoted it of course and all of a sudden you have a marketing machine from a big organization doing the job . The kids that would have probably done the flag football or soccer camp ended up trying out Rugby and loved it. You think those kids wanted to stop playing Rugby after 10 weeks of fun in the summer? Hell no, they wanted to join our club. I think I had a week of office work after the summer and people started calling asking when preseason was starting. On top of that the campers (mostly 8-12 year olds) were idolizing the 16 and 17 year olds that were volunteering. Some of our volunteers are guys getting picked for the State All Star team, EIRA and USA South Panthers etc. so they know their Rugby and they have the physiques and “cool factor” to inspire little kids.
RN: I notice your website doesn’t identify any girls/women’s teams; any plans to develop female squads?
GM: Okapi Wanderers RFC is a work-in-progress and it is definitely on the agenda. We’ve had a few girls ask about having a team over the last year but they were from different ages, ranging from 10 to 22 years old; so, at this point, it would be difficult but there’s definitely an interest. We have been talking in depth with a few mothers involved with the club who want the sisters of players to play Field Hockey so we may end up going the Field Hockey route to provide an equally competitive sport for the girls if we don’t get enough girls for Rugby. We get a little frustrated that we don’t have girls team yet but we have to remind ourselves what we have done in just a couple of years, it’ll come with time. We have to rein ourselves in occasionally.
RN: What are some of the challenges you face with nine different squads?
GM: In the beginning it was simply man power. Not enough coaches to spread around. All of our coaches are volunteers and the club pays for all their registration with USA Rugby and to get their coaching certifications level 200, we are trying to make it as professional as possible. So far we have only one Level 300 Coach, but we are in the process of registering 3 more 300 Level coaches. Every time a course comes through from USA Rugby we make sure we ask everyone to improve their coaching skills.
Logistics is another big thing. Trying to get all age-groups to play on the same day can be quite a task; it hasn’t worked out too often due to clubs not having a full range of age groups but when we pull it off it is spectacular! It’s a full Club-Day with one game after another and each age getting to watch the older ones play right after them is fabulous. Our socials have become a real family day and I think those days are helping us become a very tight, albeit, very big family.
RN: How do you manage game pitches for so many squads and practice time?
GM: We were able to be approved to have a seat at the decision-making table with the City of Weston and The Sport Alliance of Weston – although we are considered the strange new brother to all the other sports in town. The City of Weston and The Sports Alliance of Weston have bent over backwards to accommodate us as we grow. We train on one or two baseball outfields from 6-8pm on Wednesdays and Fridays with all the kids. That can be a lot of kids in a tight space on the occasions that we only have one field available, so we adapt the training accordingly: we have a scrum sled off the field and we rotate the forwards from JV and Varsity to clear space, this allows the backs to train with extra room to throw the ball around. The younger teams are easier because the field space they need to mark out is smaller so coaches work really well with each other to cordon off appropriate sized areas. The Men and Old boys come later at 8-10pm and get to use that whole field.
This year has been a particular problem as the City had scheduled to replace two fields with artificial turf. The work started in October just when we were starting our pre-season so we have had to bounce around a lot for home games and occasionally had to rent a fields in a neighboring town. We aren’t called the Wanderers for nothing. The fields are almost completed and that will be great addition. The City of Weston has made an enormous investment and have even gone so far as ensuring that the kind of turf they are laying on one field is World Rugby Compliant.
RN: Many club systems have a common attack and defense philosophy throughout the system, does your organization follow that model and if so what are your club philosophies?
GM: We didn’t have a universal system until this year. We just let the coaches from each group influence their team in the first year. The only prerequisite that it was asked from them was little guys should have fun and everyone should play on game day. Once they get to Middle school and High school age the guys that show up to training and the best players get picked. On 2016 we appointed a Director of Rugby, our Level 300 Coach, is the one that has prepared the “identity” of style of rugby that is being taught. This year we have started to implement the system in Varsity and that is shadowed by JV and more recently by middle school. The idea is to have everyone utlizing the same training style and game plan so we can just “plug and play” as kids move up and as players develop. We used the Exeter Chiefs as an example when explaining that to our members and coaches. They were a 2nd tier team in England with no money. Their head coach, Rob Baxter, took them to the premiership a couple of years ago and he is now putting them in the playoffs consistently and his young first team players are getting international honors on a regular basis for England, Scotland Wales and Ireland.
RN: With your success in development what advice would you give USA Rugby regarding national development?
GM: I attended the NDS in Baltimore this year and I saw USA Rugby release a chart saying that they want to increase the size of the base of the pyramid and shift focus from High School and College to Youth and Middle school but the fact is they are still getting sucked into cutting youth and female budgets to cover the expense of the men’s national teams. It looks like false promises so far, then again maybe I shouldn’t believe everything I read on the internet.
My advice if anyone up there is listening; you’ve got to get lots of teams playing in small areas ( rec league style). That way you get more kids playing the game every Saturday in their own neighborhood rather than having to travel across state every weekend for a competitive game: it’s more attractive due to easy access. From that you can find the kids that want to take it more seriously and will be willing to sacrifice to travel and then you’ll get your next USA players able to compete because they’ve been playing the game for the same length of time (all their life).
RN: You have several sponsors in a rugby landscape where clubs are struggling for sponsorship; any tips you’d like to share?
GM: Get parents involved. Spread the workload, see above.
RN: Your YouTube channel, the content is on par with many across the country; any plans to develop production and groom broadcasters?
GM: We hired an ex-player to work for us last year to film the games, he enjoys it and gets paid, again we share the burden from dues and sponsors. We believe that is very important to have our kids being shown somehow, it is a very big country and it gives access to recruiters and other coaches to see how they play. I guess with my background at Bein Sports I could do the commentating but I’d rather coach unless, ESPN needs someone of course.
RN: I see some decent crowds at your matches on YouTube; what is the rugby environment like in Weston and Southern Florida?
GM: Broward County has the most teams around in Florida. It means the legitimate Rugby players are spreading thinner in the short term but its good because more teams means more kids will organically get involved as there will be a need to fill rosters. Teams that try hard to recruit will swim the others will sink or join the next nearest team. We’ve seen it happen a few times this season. We have had a few local derby’s over the last year or two and the occasional Friday night game under lights is always popular. I’m almost tempted to push that to happen more often for games against neighbors. It just creates such a great atmosphere.
RN: Why do you think the Greater Miami area has given rise to such a strong youth program?
GM: In my opinion it hasn’t, Broward and Palm Beach Counties have started to make some strides. Miami RFC joined Key Biscayne this season at the high school level but north of the border in Broward and Palm Beach the coaches seem to be a bit more proactive about youth. It boils down to the senior teams that have been around longer to start the same work we are doing. Youth system usually falls apart every other year and others simply have neither High school nor youth. Our Men’s team struggled at the beginning of the year – our first season in the top division in Florida – but we will be beating these teams on a regular basis in the next year or two because we are investing our time and energy in the kids. Key Biscayne, Wellington and Boca Raton are on the right path too, they are modeling similar structures. Time will tell if what we are doing is right but I’m going to back modern thinking every time, especially as the old way hasn’t worked out so far.
RN: How would you change the current landscape of national US club rugby if you could?
GM: We need to find a way to encourage senior teams and clubs to produce rec leagues for the youngest age groups and clubs start to charge the right amount of money to players to be able to develop it, Rugby seems to be looked at as a cheap sport option. It is a sport, at Okapi Wanderers RFC we train them, suit them up, pay for referees, socials and provide the infrastructure for them to play a sport. We believe that if we can transform it in a sport in which coaches are able to get paid (Like other sports) it would be much easier to find more willing participants.
It should be mandatory to develop youth in every club to be part of a union. I said this at a meeting a while back and everyone laughed. It’s stupid not to, plain and simple. We look at our U10 team that won state championship last year and after less than 2 years of playing together their basic skills are better than many age groups. Most of them tackle with confidence, they pass the ball only when they have drawn a player, rucking is low, driven and bound on. We can’t say the same for the men’s team, whom most of which have been playing the same amount of time as the little guys. U10’s are a clean slate, it’s easier to teach and get them hooked into rugby as they have no bad habits yet.
The structure isn’t that bad on a national level, size of the country is the problem and we can’t change that. The likes of ATAVUS and EIRA try to identify the best players, but they are unable to reach all of them, either because cost or distance. It goes back to gathering large amounts of kids in local neighborhoods. The structure is simply top heavy. A more in-depth structure at the lower levels will feed the higher level structure. Again, going back to investment in local neighborhoods.
RN: I see you are a Domestic Non Profit Corporation; how does this benefit the club?
GM: It makes it a lot easier to get donations from sponsors as they are tax deductible. Plenty of companies and government organizations have grants and scholarships available for this kind of organization. It’s very proces- oriented and time-consuming work but if you keep searching you’ll come across a lot of available funds that can be used for youth sports or education. We haven’t been successful yet in receiving those grants yet but we’ve applied for a few and we are in the learning process to be able to acquire. We learn from it every time so we can try again each year and eventually I’m sure we’ll get something that will help us grow the game more professionally and with appropriate backing. More importantly it was set up like that so the club will outlive it’s founders and can continue on as part of the community. I always tell one of the founders (who will remain anonymous) that when he dies I’ll have a statue made of him outside the “Okapi stadium” so nobody forgets the founders of the club, but he is kind of angry looking so he might scare away the fans.
RN: What are your thoughts on clubs like Austin and Glendale moving toward professionalism?
GM: I’ve Interviewed Doug Schoninger (owner of Pro Rugby) a couple of times while working at Bein Sports TV and he wasn’t too happy about other leagues and team franchises popping up to compete with Pro Rugby. From a USA standpoint I understand his take on it, sports are done a little differently here from the rest of the world. However, at the end of the day It’s normal all over the world for the best amateur teams to start paying their players sooner or later. I look back at when I was a kid and the top amateur clubs in England always paid a few of the best players. Conversely some of the lower level pro teams didn’t have a fully pro roster. They used to use something called “amateur forms” which basically meant if you made the first team but didn’t have a contract you’d get “game day” money but you wouldn’t get contract money like the top players. That said, if amateur clubs can figure out a way to pay players why shouldn’t they?
I grew up in the North of England and the story of the split between League and Union Rugby is common knowledge. In the early 1900’s teams in the South of England around London had players that were maybe accountants, lawyers and business owners…upper middle class, but in the North players were coal miners and ship builders, lower income folk. The guys in the North had to take the day off work to train and/or travel Friday and Saturday and weren’t being compensated. That’s tough to swallow when there were 100,000 people paying to get into a stadium and watch a game. The guys in the South didn’t need the money but those in the North couldn’t feed their kids if they took time off work to play Rugby for free. That’s when the club owners in the North met and created the break away Rugby League which still exists today. Now you have The Super League and the famous NRL in Australia. Professionalism is the natural progression.
RN: Would the Wanderers ever have any interest in joining the yet to be officially announced Major League Rugby competition as a professional club?
GM: We have spoken about that amongst the board at the club all the time. We know that in order to continue growing we need to buy a piece of land and build a stadium. The problem is South Florida is a bit pricey in the real estate world. We need to have a crack with David Beckham and see if he’ll let us use his stadium when it’s built! I also made it very clear to Doug that if he expanded Pro Rugby that we would want Okapi Wanderers RFC involved in a Florida team if it were to happen, but it seems like that ship may have sailed. He has told me that he will be doing something moving forward but he is keeping his cards close to his chest right now.
GM: It sells well! I had a mate of mine in England go on their not long ago to buy a replica jersey and he saw a bunch of our hoodies and baseball caps. He called me to ask if we had bought an Aviva premiership franchise or something. We are in negotiations to move to another supplier that has offered us more products and more revenue sharing. That money will go to fundraising for tournaments that we want to send the players to participate, buy more equipment, subsidize dues for kids that maybe can’t afford to pay and more coaches to get trained and certified.
RN: Marketing, advertising, sponsorships, an academy system…what is the long term goal of the Okapi Wanderers?
GM: We have a pretty advanced marketing and advertising system in place in comparison to most Rugby clubs in the USA and its constantly evolving. Sponsorships only come if you go looking for them and I worry if the next generation of club leaders aren’t as hard working as the current group it might just dry up. For that we made this year a sustainable budget for the years to come. We plan on developing our U20 team next season treating it a bit like an academy system for college age kids. U20 teams are in the plans of USA Rugby so it will be a good stepping stone for High school kids going to adult Rugby if they don’t go to college or go to local colleges so we want to grow that and filter them up to the 2nd division team eventually. Building a club house on our own piece of land with a real rugby field isn’t farfetched and will happen within a few years. We would love to see us with our fields and our guys playing professionally within 10 years.
RN: In 2016 13,591 showed up in Ft. Lauderdale to watch USA vs Chile during the Americas Rugby Championship; where do you see the future of rugby going in south Florida?
GM: Yes, we had the Chilean National Team training and interacting with our youth players at our location in Weston, Florida and our little guys played an exhibition game during halftime. It was a great day! Fort Lauderdale RFC were hosting Ruggerfest the same weekend so there were a lot of Rugby clubs from all over the country and the Caribbean in town. I think the combination of the local Rugby community, Ruggerfest visiting teams and then add to that the fact that South Florida is a major holiday attraction all added to it’s success. Who doesn’t want to get away from Chicago, Boston, New York for a weekend in the sun, play a few friendly games then go watch the national team? Sunday, lots of people went to the beach and then flew back home for work on Monday. South Florida is famous for producing NFL players and Florida Rugby teams have produced a few current Rugby stars like Cam Dolan and Perry Baker. Guys like this are two a penny down here. They are just playing other sports. If teams like Okapi Wanderers RFC continue to provide a good environment the kids will come and try it out. We all know that if a kid comes and tries out Rugby at Okapi Wanderers RFC they get hooked. They get more game time than Football. There’s more places on a squad than basketball so more opportunity to play. It’s fast paced so that pulls in frustrated baseball players. Soccer players that prefer a bit more “BOSH” come over. Furthermore, the parents recognize the values we instill. Smack talk and attitude are nipped in the bud at a young age. Parents worry about who is raising their kid when they aren’t around. It makes sense that parents want to put their kids with Rugby coaches. We are from a more traditional and humble part of society. Rugby is just another animal in terms of conduct in sports, people want to be around good people. There will be a professional team in the near future and plenty of leagues to supply it with talent. It’s just around the corner everything is set up to be successful.
RN: Coaches, administrators, managers; I’m sure your entire organization is full of people who excel but is there anyone you’d like to highlight?
GM: No, We are a club made up of great volunteers that dedicate their time for the betterment of it’s people as players and human beings. Everyone plays a part that is necessary for this club to move forward. It would be unjust to single out anyone.
RN: Finally, is there anything you’d like to let everyone know about the Okapi Wanderers?
GM: Our name was made up by the kids that play here. Wanderers, because we didn’t have a home at the time. Additionally, the parents come here from all over the world to work in Miami and Fort Lauderdale so wandering and cultural differences are a massive part of who we are. Imagine, the coaching staff alone is American, Argentine, British and French among others. Look at the political and Rugby history between those countries and we get on great and that’s how Rugby is. We make fun of each other all the time but get on really well. The style of Rugby those coaches teach is very reflective of the country they come from and you can see it when the kids play. An Okapi is a mix of several animals in appearance; it looks part Giraffe, Zebra, Mule. Much like our family members. So I think the name is an important part of our culture as a club. Something that I hope will carry forward forever.
RN: Thank you so much for your time, Gavin, this has been a great interview!