7s Success: What must USA Rugby do for a respectable 2016 Olympic showing?

USA Eagles huddle at Glasgow 7's.

USA Eagles huddle at Glasgow 7′s.

By Baron Christopher Hanson – We’re only two years out from the 2016 summer Olympics, and 7s campaigners worldwide are beginning to polish their rugby boots and get down to business.

Behind the scenes, the data-generation and media coverage of Olympic rugby will be considerable. If USA Rugby’s narratives and performances shine in Rio, the massive US news and media markets will certainly be kind.

The leading question of course: How can USA Rugby get down to business, play more remarkably, and win distinctively at both international 15s and Olympic 7s levels?

Do we need more star players and coaching recruits? More Eagles experience abroad? More money for the sport? Or a more distinctive brand of American rugby altogether?

The answers lie in more comprehensive analyses and perhaps thinking outside the box.

Historically, the Welsh, Fijians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and the English have been brilliant at 7s rugby. For them Rugby is a deep tradition, a cherished religion, and even a plausible national security strategy.

Such population mindshare for rugby in these countries translates into sell-out stadium attendance, voracious merchandise sales, and centers of excellence that spare no expense architecting rugby programs as national treasures.

My thesis is: If we want USA rugby to play well during the 2016 Olympics, then we need to effectively generate greater income for USA rugby’s 2015 Rugby World Cup effort. The effort, in turn, depends on the outcomes of the Eagles internationals on both 15s and 7s pitches.

Next month USA takes on Scotland, Japan, and Canada on American soil. How well USA Rugby fans show up in Houston, Los Angeles, and Sacramento will be a key RWC and Olympics indicator.

NEW RECRUITING

As a 15s forward for two decades, I rarely played 7s. Part of it was taking summers off to heal, play golf, or relax with friends and family. I occasionally came to 7s training to “run with the backs” and stay in shape for a few summers, yet I was not a standout 7s player. I also didn’t get up in the middle of the night to watch international 7s the way I did 15s.

My 7s story is an example of what NOT to do, and an unhelpful trend for USA Rugby to actively address. For the USA to have a strong showing at the Olympics, more 15s players and fans must get fired up about 7s now, and get behind our Eagle 7s teams over the next two years.

One trend I’m excited to see is former Eagles returning to work for USA Rugby, especially former lock Luke Gross. Two other Eagles I admired are fellow #8s Richard Tardits and Dan Lyle. Playing for Life and Tyler, Tardits earned Eagle caps for both 15s and 7s teams. Dan Lyle of course famously turned down the NFL after VMI and played brilliant rugby for Bath and the USA, earning 15s and 7s caps as well. Their brilliance as forwards, backs, defenders, and try scorers were realized because they crossed over from 15s to play 7s just as well.

Richard Tardits now owns the Country Club of Bigorre in France. Dan Lyle is now EVP at USA Sevens in Colorado

NEW MONEY

It’s no secret that USA Rugby has always struggled financially, and strangely in such a massive country whereby billions are invested in lesser professional sports. As a result rugby vendors, salaries, profits, and budgets are beaten to a pulp.

USA Rugby earns the majority of its sustenance from LAU player and team dues, event sponsorships, ticket revenues, logo licensing and kit sales, and other donations and broadcast deals. I can report that USA Rugby has realized modest benefit from new IOC cash infusions since the Olympic decision to include rugby.

As a result, USA Rugby development, marketing, events, and national TV coverage have been slightly more afforded here and there. Captain Todd Clever even filmed a lighthearted rugby commercial that actually aired on television as build up for the Ireland match in Texas last year. 22,000 fans showed up. The USA almost won the match. Scrumhalf Mike Petri told me it was the most inflated he and the Eagles had been in a long time.

Based on this evidence, I’m convinced that if our USA Rugby National Office tripled its overall annual income over the next 1-2-3 years, the sport could accomplish 10-times more. I also believe the Eagles could crack into the top 10 globally in both 15s and 7s rankings within 3-5 years.

It’s time for a fundamental economic rebirth of rugby in America, from every level upward, so that USA Rugby can afford its own national potential.

Make no mistake; what Nigel Melville and his USA Rugby crew have accomplished over the last eight years via shoestring budgets is remarkable. Yet for rugby in America to realize its fullest potential, it’s going to take more cold hard cash pulsing upward through the entire USA Rugby pipeline and into their capable hands.

How can this begin to take shape? At the grass roots levels, four basic fiscal improvements must be conveyed and maintained:

  • All RFCs must work smarter to bring new value to their local sponsors, so as to increase donation revenues, exposure, and good will regionally.
  • All RFCs must work smarter to reach, engage, and welcome thousands of new rugby fans to their matches by tapping multiple forms of local media consistently. This includes marketing to families, children, women, alumni, etc.
  • All rugby players must gladly pay their USA Rugby dues, kit vendors, and RFC treasurers fairly, squarely, nicely, and on time. Bottom line: The suppliers and organizers of rugby in the USA need to take less of a beating from their own customers, so the sport can earn a healthy living and thrive here.
  • All RFCs must embark on the goal of having their own fields and clubhouse –– part location, part tradition, and part country club business model –– including youth and women’s facilities if desired and applicable. Even if it’s a pipe dream for now, sketch out a plan and form a committee.

This national attitude starts with every local RFC running itself more like a business, with teams wearing their RFC tie and blazers in public as a team more often, and adopting a mindset of contributing to the national team agenda.

For USA Rugby to win this summer, show well at the RWC, and have a winning Olympics, the entire sport needs to be supported by its country morally and economically.

DISTINCTIVE BRAND OF USA RUGBY

I believe the USA will make a respectable and winning showing at the Olympics if we maintain a distinctive brand or style of Rugby, one that favors our players’ strengths yet is tactically competitive against the likes of Wales, Fiji, England, and South Africa.

Eagles tackling and defense for example –– specifically the prevention of other teams from scoring well –– might become the signature brand of American rugby, the way speed is a brand for the Fijians, or the haka is a brand for the All Blacks.

Part of my reasoning is that an impenetrable defense is a skill that most 15s forwards live and die by. Tackling and defense might be the brand that helps convert more 15s players and fans into 7s, akin to how former Eagles Richard Tardits and Dan Lyle crossed over.

TAKEAWAYS

The four major milestones facing USA Rugby right now are:

  1. Winning against Scotland, Japan, and Canada on US soil this June 7th, 14th, and 21st
  2. Playing and scoring well against the All Blacks in Chicago Nov 1st
  3. Showing well at the 2015 RWC for 15s the following year
  4. Showing well at the 2016 Olympics for 7s that summer

Each of these milestones are attainable, if…

  • USA Rugby can convert more 15s-only players and fans into 7s-also players and fans
  • USA Rugby can convince local RFCs to take a more proactive role in marketing rugby locally and nationally
  • USA Rugby can cash-in on surges in Eagle match attendance, national dues payments, and other new income generators

baron-hansonSMALLBaron Christopher Hanson is the principal of RedBaron Advisors, a growth, strategy, marketing, and PR firm based in Charleston, SC and Palm Beach, FL. A Harvard graduate, former #8, and Porsche restorer, the “RedBaron” can be reached via RedBaronUSA.com or 843-641-0331.

What do you think needs to happen for the Eagles to show well in the 2016 Rio Olympics?  Do they need to get more players overseas, a domestic league, a team in Super Rugby, host a Rugby World Cup, or something else.

  • John Liang

    Given the decreasing numbers of parents allowing their sons to play American football, the Olympic 7s should have a dramatic effect once parents start watching WOMEN play a collision/tackle sport. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, parents could think: “If it’s safe enough for a girl, maybe it’s safe for my son.”

    This has to be coupled with a STRONG concussion policy backed up by studies of former rugby players (U.S. and foreign) who suffered concussions.

  • Lisa

    As is frequently the case, conversation only centers around the MNT. The USOC and the American public cares about medals, and they don’t care if it’s men or women get them – they care that they are AMERICANS bring home hardware.

    Meanwhile the women are begging for funding for the WOMENS RUGBY WORLD CUP, in just a few months, on Facebook and other social media, while we continue to bring event after event for the MNT to the US. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do those things, and we should’t promote our MNT, we absolutely should. At at some point though, we need to consider that our women’s team is in a position to not only compete at the Olympics, but MEDAL. And they need money too. I’ve never seen one of the men’s players fundraising on social media for an event, let alone a world cup, but all 100 women – even those with only an outside chance of making the squad – have been working like mad just to get money to compete. We pay our dues too, and if our events were promoted and funded the way the MNT events are, who knows what we could accomplish.

  • http://www.deepsouthrugby.net Tom Crosby

    It is not looking good for the men to even qualify for 2016 Olympics … Maybe $48 million Natl Guard spends on NASCAR & Indy car racing could help – see article http://www.deepsouthrugby.net/rugby-sevens-7s-rio-olympics/usa-7s-sides-june-2014-no-olympic-checkered-flag-on-the-horizon/

  • Verne Greene

    For the U.S. men to play well in the Olympics they first must qualify for the tournament. Only 12 teams will get in. The top 4 sides in the IRB rankings are in. That looks like South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand and England (Great Brittain), Olympic host Brazil gets an automatic bid. The remaining seven teams will have to win a Regional Qualifier. The Regional Qualifiers would likely be Kenya (Africa), Japan (Asia), Canada (North America/Caribbean), France (Europe), Argentina (South America), and Samoa (Oceania). Teams such as Australia, Portugal, USA, Russia, Tonga, Spain, and Zimbabwe would then go on to play in a last-chance16-team World Qualifier with only the winner to reach the 2016 Olympics. So, the USA’s best chance is to beat Canada in the North America/Caribbean Regional Qualifier. Currently, Canada is ranked No. 6 and the Eagles are No. 13.

  • Verne Greene

    I think you are counting your chickens. The odds are long that the U.S. Eagles, at least the men, will even qualify for Brazil 2016. Only 12 teams will qualify. As the host Brazil, which isn’t ranked by the IRB, is given an automatic berth, leaving 11 spots. The Eagles are tanked 13 in the world.

  • Verne Greene

    Fat chance the USA men even qualify for the Olympics.

  • MuckrakerRugby

    Exhorting us to pay our CIPP dues on time? At the same time feeding us a line of manure that Melville has done wonders on a shoestring budget? A CEO’s job in a non-profit is to bring in as much foundation trust and sponsor revenue as possible. USA Rugby is NOT going to get out of the fiscal doghouse by the wallets of those folks who are reasonably and understandably angry because Melville’s competence as a CEO is nonexistent. Throw the bum out and his shills with him. USA Rugby will stand on it’s own and the average American sports fan will get behind the Eagles (and spend money on them) once they begin to win, win big, and win more often than they lose.

  • Bruce

    Sevens may allow long shots but none so long as USA men have. I imagine the women’s odds to be shorter but with no shot for a medal. Fortunately, given NBC coverage, not qualifying is a good goal.

  • Doug Lyons

    While the Eagles are definitely the underdog when it comes to getting past Canada to get into the Olympics it is not an impossibility and with the addition of one or two players will definitely help. Specifically, the addition of a rugby fit Thretton Palamano could be a significant to the Eagles chances. His power combined with Carlin Isles speed could make for a dangerous combination.