There have been false dawns before but American Rugby is about to take its first steps into the pro leagues with the announcement of the PRO Rugby competition. Scotty Stevenson talks to the men behind the league and assesses its challenges and potential.
At Travers Island last weekend the Old Blue of New York defeated New York Athletic Club in the final game of the American Rugby Premiership Fall Season. In a typically bad tempered match – this is a long-standing rivalry built upon bitterness and proximity – the Old Blue managed to impose their characteristically violent will upon their New Rochelle rivals to secure a late win.
In the North East of America, no rugby match comes close to equalling the visceral blood lust of this particular encounter, though in typical American amateur rugby fashion all bad blood was left on the field and all players left alive at fulltime were soon engaged in that other great tradition of the fixture: the heroic rescue of alcoholic beverages from aluminium prisons.
While all this was happening, a former Bond Trader and Stadium Financier by the name of Douglas Schoninger watched on. Forty-eight hours after the conclusion of this particular pitched battle of Pelham, he would announce the formation of America’s first professional rugby competition, set for an April 2016 start date, sanctioned by both USA and World Rugby and financed by him under the PRO Rugby banner.
Of the great American amateur rugby rivalry playing out before him at Travers Island on Saturday he simply said, “These two clubs really don’t like each other at all.” You could say this for Schoninger: he is a master of understatement.
What is not understated is Schoninger’s obvious appreciation for the game of rugby union – both for its existing and exceptionally passionate amateur environment and for its massive growth potential. The challenge for Pro Rugby USA is in finding a way to weld those heretofore inimical concepts and to build a sustainable and successful competition.
With the re-introduction of Rugby sevens to the Olympic programme in Rio and the Rugby World Cup having been given exposure on major network television in the USA, Schoninger feels the time is right to take the game to a new level in America. Initially, six teams have been proposed covering the North East, the Rockies, and California. It is understood Philadelphia, Denver, Sacramento and San Francisco have been confirmed while a New York City option remains under negotiation.
Canadian interest may be piqued with the inclusion of a Vancouver-based side. Canadian rugby has certainly shown interest in joining an expanded league in the 2017 season, which would provide a much needed boost to Canada’s rugby programme, arguably one of the real disappointments at RWC 2015.
Old Blue of New York v Life, May 2015
Others have tried to institute a professional league before – that much needs to be acknowledged – but the last attempt by the so-called NRFL, which pitched itself ostensibly as NFL Lite and felt no need to reconcile its own ambitions with those of the rugby community or the national body was quickly buried under a pile of half-pie promises and the unbearable weight of scepticism.
The mistakes made by the organisation behind the doomed NRFL have provided, at least in part, a blueprint for the new competition. That is why Schoninger stood on the sidelines last weekend at the New York Athletic Club. That is why he is so keen to make the development of a genuinely manageable pro league a much more collaborative process.
“There will never be full agreement from everyone involved in the game on the shape this takes,” he says, with a shrewd nod to existing and inevitable politics of rugby, “but we understand that we need the rugby community to get behind this, and we in turn need to support the existing rugby community.”
This sentiment is very much at odds with the NRFL proposal which rather foolishly seemed to pride itself on its stunning belligerence. The NRFL saw no good reason for the need to be sanctioned by the national governing body nor World Rugby. It saw no need for players to be registered with clubs. In its blind arrogance it managed to turn off every vested interest but its own. Self-interest is not much of a bargaining chip.
Stephen Lewis, Director of Rugby at the Old Blue of New York has joined Schoninger’s team to lead the Operations strategy. Lewis, a jocular Scotsman long-tenured in the Big Apple, seems the perfect appointment to provide the necessary link between the existing clubs and the new professional competition. He admits there are myriad challenges ahead but sees massive upside for the game as it takes its first steps into the professional environment.
“Firstly, we respect the values of the game here and we commit to those values that have seen rugby enjoy good growth at school, club and collegiate level,” he says.
“Importantly, though, we see ourselves as an independent organisation that can add that next layer to the American rugby landscape. Understanding what rugby represents to the people already involved is crucial to making this a success, then we can take all of those things that are recognisably rugby – community, camaraderie, respect – and ensure we take an organic and holistic approach to exposing the game to a new audience.”
To understand some of the challenges PRO Rugby faces, we must first consider the position of the game in an American sporting landscape dominated by the big four – NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. Rugby has never positioned itself in the same league as the big leagues. In fact, if anything, rugby has been widely regarded as the Frat House of US Sports, a game for the guys who didn’t make the football roster, and who would rather tap the keg anyway.
The game itself may have been taken seriously (and clubs and colleges have become increasingly professional in their approach to the game in recent years) but for most participants, the after-match was the highlight of the day. It may be close to 50 years old, but this sublime piece by Joe Jares in Sports Illustrated in many ways encapsulates all that rugby once stood for. Even today, elements of this story form the foundations for rugby’s reputation among the casual American observer.
The Founders of Old Blue of New York
There are other issues, too. According to Lewis, and in what is a scarcely believable state of affairs, only two artificial fields in North America meet the requirements of World Rugby’s turf regulations. That poses a significant problem in finding suitable stadia for teams to be based at – a problem that is not insurmountable, yet remains a major ball ache for the organisers. Get it wrong and the experience of everyone – fans, players, media – will fall flat.
Also to be considered are the rosters themselves. With 30 players and coaching staff to be found and financed across six teams, the make- up of the sides will require serious deliberation. How many of the spots on each side, for instance, will be left open for national team members (both Canadian and American)? How many spots will be available for foreign nationals? How will existing club players be selected? And will spots be open to Collegiate-level players?
Fundamentally, PRO Rugby will grapple with the one crucial question from which all others flow: Does American Rugby have 180 professional grade players to begin with? The Simple answer, right now, is probably not. Yet, with more than 30,000 players at collegiate level, and an expanding club system, there is a temptation to reduce this fundamental quandary to a certain chicken and egg level. Without the players, does the competition exist? Or, rather, without the competition, can the players be found?
As it stands, clubs like Old Blue and others survive on the willingness of rugby people to stay involved in the game while pursuing their careers outside it. There is no money on offer at club level – just the goodwill attached to being a part of something unique and the benefit of the support which any club structure offers its members. That mentality has served many of the clubs well, and they have rightly indulged in their relatively rebellious and underground attitude.
Even the national champions, Georgia-based Life, have revelled in the knowledge that rugby has a special kind of spirit that the big leagues long-ago left behind. In May of this year, when speaking of the inevitable leap into the waters of professionalism, Athletic Director Dan Payne told me,
“Yes we want rugby to be professional, but if it’s at the expense of the culture we enjoy now, then I am not so sure.”
It’s a salient point in the battle for hearts and minds. But there is another element to consider: those same clubs, like Life and like Old Blue and Mystic River and NYAC and others, could suddenly find themselves at the heart of the development of professional players – an attractive position that may not be immediately obvious to the stalwarts. The American clubs, especially those currently active in the Pacific and American Rugby Premierships would have a new Raison d’etre and a new mode of recruitment.
Whatever the club response to the positioning of the PRO Rugby competition, Schoninger says they will continue to be collaborative and they will continue to ensure that all steps are taken to make this venture one that North American Rugby can benefit from.
“It’s a great game and it has great people, and we believe we can help take that to a place it has never been before,” he says.
“Are we in some ways a sporting equivalent of disruptive technology? Yes, in a sense we are. But this is a nation of disruptive people, and you have to have the desire to drive change if you want to be competitive.”
On Saturday, the members of the Old Blue of New York and the New York Athletic Club drank their post-match beers and reflected on the end of the fall season. For now winter is coming to the North East.
For now American Rugby, at least in these parts, will hunker down for the snow, and await a very different looking Spring.