Professional Rugby: A Sleeping Giant in the United States

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By Hope Allen, @hollahopay (Old Dominion University)

Nate Ebner of USA Rugby participates in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Picture courtesy of USA Today

Nate Ebner of USA Rugby participates in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Picture courtesy of USA Today

Rugby: a sleeping giant coming awake in the United State’s sports industry or a fad with a fan following at its plateau? The Rugby World Cup website claims that the 2015 Rugby World Cup was “the most-viewed rugby event ever, reaching and inspiring new audiences worldwide.” It stated that NBC’s coverage of the final game between New Zealand and Australia in the United States “attracted more than one million viewers.” In 2016, the historical match between the United State’s national team and the notorious New Zealand All Blacks was able to sell out Soldier Field in Chicago with an outstanding 61,500 tickets. CEO Brett Gosper of World Rugby, the international governing body for rugby, asserts that, "the US market is a very important market for rugby. It’s a high-growth market, it’s the fastest-growing team sport in the USA."

For years, rugby in the States grew slowly, primarily through local clubs and college teams. More recently, it has expanded through youth programs and small pockets of avid rugby fans across the country. Nate Ebner, U.S. rugby olympian and New England Patriots player, believes that the re-admittance of Rugby 7s in the Rio Olympics will give rugby the exposure it needs in America to grow the sport to maximum potential.  Many rugby fans share Ebner’s view and believe the United States is an untapped market waiting for an investor to seize the opportunity of creating a dominate rugby presence. The sports market in the United States’ is hyper-competitive market and has numerous sports leagues rotating throughout the seasons with extremely loyal fans. So how can a newcomer, rugby, take a seat with the “big four” - NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL? A new major professional league would have to compete for broadcasting deals, sponsorships, venues, fans, and much more.

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Multiple attempts have been made to establish a major professional league for rugby. USA Rugby Super League was an attempt to organize the top performing grassroots rugby clubs into one super league with the hopes of one day developing into a professional rugby league. It operated from 1997 to 2012 until USA Rugby, the national rugby governing body, sanctioned and reformatted the league in 2012 under the new title “USA Rugby Elite Cup.” The competition commenced with one inaugural year before it folded in 2013. However, the most recent attempts to bring American rugby to the national stage have been through the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) and the National Rugby Football League (NRFL). The NRFL was founded in 2014 and owned by RugbyLaw IIC, a group of investors who see the potential of rugby in the United States. Since 2014, NRFL has held six combines to showcase athletes much like the NFL does with its combine. The league hopes for games to begin in 2017. As of right now only one team, The Rough Riders, are listed on their website and no schedule is in place for any games.

The Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) Logo. Image courtesy of PRO

The Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) Logo. Image courtesy of PRO

Conversely, PRO Rugby was founded in 2015 by American Businessman and Entrepreneur Douglas Schoninger. Schoninger has been able to launch professional rugby like no other. PRO Rugby launched “with the blessing of USA Rugby and World Rugby”, making the program the first professional men’s 15s league sanctioned in history. Schoninger stated in an interview with Forbes that the budget for PRO Rugby is, "far smaller than the annual paycheck of a topflight NFL wide receiver”  who would make a stunning $16 million per year in salary alone. Schoninger continued to say, that as of right now, “the league is just [barely] breaking even." Unlike NRFL, PRO Rugby held its first inaugural season in 2016. PRO Rugby’s first season consisted of five teams - Denver Stampede, Ohio Aviators, Sacremento Express, San Diego Breakers, and San Francisco Rush. The league started with 103 players amongst the five teams. with each player’s salary ranging from $20,000-$35,000.

PRO Rugby wrapped up its first season on July 31, 2016 with the Denver Stampede winning the title. Schoninger expressed his plans to expand the league from five teams to eight teams and split into two conferences on the west coast and east coast. However, despite the success from the first season, in December of 2016 it was reported that Schoninger sent out an email to coaches and players citing the termination of the San Francisco Rush based on lack of resources, more specifically the lack of a suitable venue. Less than a week later on December 20th, Schoninger sent another email to all coaches and players in the league stating that all contracts were to be terminated in 30 days if USA Rugby and PRO Rugby could not come to a mutual agreement on the league’s rights.

Dominic Waldouck supports an Ohio Aviators attack, against the San Diego Breakers. Joseph K Ghammashi/PRO Rugby

Dominic Waldouck supports an Ohio Aviators attack, against the San Diego Breakers. Joseph K Ghammashi/PRO Rugby

Schoninger assigned blame to USA Rugby for a lack of support and broken agreements. Schoninger met with Dan Payne, CEO of USA Rugby, and Alex Magleby, General Manager of High Performance, the weekend following the decision to terminate all contracts. During the meeting, Schoninger reported in an interview that it became clear “USA Rugby had no intention of enforcing our rights [as a sanctioned league] as defined in our agreement.”

Below is the full letter.

PRO Rugby Players,
As some of you may or may not know, we have been having serious issues with the cooperation and the enforcement of our agreement with USA Rugby. We have been actively trying to resolve our issues with USA Rugby for over four months and, unfortunately, it appears that USA Rugby will not honor the commitments they made to us.
Because of this, we are notifying all presently agreed players of PRO Rugby that we are exercising the Voluntary Termination clause in your contract (section 5(b)). We are hopeful, but with no assurances, that we will be able to resolve all issues with USA Rugby prior to end of the termination clause period. We will keep you up to date with any progress or news as it becomes available.
Please remember, until the end of the termination clause you are still an employee of PRO Rugby and all duties and obligations should be adhered to.
Because of the above, payment for the period ending on December 15th was delayed.  These payments will be issued tomorrow, December 21st for receipt no later than December 22, 2016.
I am very sorry that we were forced to take this action and we are trying to do everything we can to ensure that PRO Rugby, its players, coaches, and employees are all treated fairly.
Doug Schoninger

USA Rugby released a statement stating that the organization “categorically denies any and all allegations purported by PRO Rugby.” As the situation muddied, numerous grievances, rumors, and allegations came to the surface regarding PRO Rugby’s unethical business practices, lack of professionalism, and unpaid debts. Most notably, Plates, a non-profit restaurant that employs homeless Sacramento residents, accused the Sacramento Express of racking up an unpaid bill of $7,510.34 during the months that the restaurant supplied the team with meals during their season. Since then, players, coaches and former employees of PRO Rugby have turned to labor unions and brought lawsuits against Schoninger for unpaid salaries and broken contracts. So what is next for PRO Rugby? Schoninger insists he is committed to competition and is “evaluating” the 2017 season. He intends to re-hire as many past PRO Rugby players as possible to play a to-be-determined competition.

Domestic investors are not the only individuals trying to capitalize on the professional rugby void in the U.S.. Guinness Pro12 is the only cross-border rugby league in Europe and has been considering a transatlantic transition since August 2016. Opening franchises in Canada and the United States could potentially increase revenues allowing Pro12 to compete financially with Europe’s two other major rugby leagues, England’s Aviva Premiership and France’s Top 14. Through ‘exploratory talks,’ Houston and Vancouver have been discussed as potential cities to open franchises and players would be recruited from domestic universities and senior clubs.

The Guinness Pro 12 logo. Image courtesy of Guinness Pro 12.

The Guinness Pro 12 logo. Image courtesy of Guinness Pro 12.

Expansion to the US for Guinness Pro12 would ensure the United States finally receives professional league play, but would it be welcomed by consumers? The league would not follow the authentic, North American format of professional organizations like the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Being a part of an international league like Pro12 would mean the closest international competition is 4,000 miles away in the UK. This would present many unique challenges and disadvantages such as constant travel and lack of fan dedication. If Guinness Pro12 were to establish a presence in the United States, PRO Rugby’s league would be certainly be compromised.

It appears that professional rugby leagues are on the backburner for governing body, USA Rugby. According to the congress’ statement of USA Rugby’s February congressional meeting, “A discussion on professional rugby ensued, which unfortunately left many questions unanswered due to ongoing negotiations. [This] prevented Board members and the National Office from commenting, at the advice of the legal counsel.” Furthermore, USA Rugby launched a new strategic plan called Strategy 2020 which outlines the governing body’s plan for growth “by increasing participation and awareness [...] with emphasis on development, community rugby and youth.” The plan promises that USA Rugby will focus on efforts to Commercialize and professionalize rugby in the USA.

The goal of rugby in the US is growth. To USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne, youth programs are the key to successful growth. To PRO Rugby CEO Doug Schoninger, a successful rugby league is the key to growth. Regardless of the pathway, capturing and engaging new fans is paramount. Many believe American football is derived from rugby, so perhaps the task of engaging fans is not as difficult as would seem. Those in the rugby community would argue that rugby is a more appealing sport than football, with more at stake. Rugby is just as brutal and physical as American football yet athletes play with minimal protective gear.

On that notion, American football stops frequently between plays whereas rugby only halts for penalties and injuries thus making it more engaging and continuous. American football has unlimited substitutions while Rugby teams can only substitute up to seven players the entire game. Yet despite these differences, American football is an innate part sporting culture in the United States.

Perhaps rugby is almost too similar to be accepted by sports consumers in America. Whether a professional rugby league grows domestically or is established in an international league, there is no denying that America is in an infantile stage of professional rugby. Major work still needs to be done in the sport and the next few years will see a fascinating effort to pioneer rugby in the United States. And so as the giant that is rugby continues its American slumber and on the verge of daybreak, surely, tomorrow will begin the awakening of a new rugby era in the United States.

Student Bio: Hope Allen is graduating in the Spring of 2017 with a degree in communication from Old Dominion University. Upon graduation, she will be continue her education at Georgetown University in their Sport Industry Management graduate program. Hope has four years (and counting) of collegiate rugby experience under her belt and hopes to eventually work for USA Rugby or a professional rugby league. You can connect with Hope on LinkedIn here.

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