Friday, September 7, 2007

Bringing rugby to the US

I spent a great weekend in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It’s a city I really didn’t know that well and it was there that we held the inaugural meeting of the USA Rugby Congress. We were in Leo Burnett’s beautiful art deco building at 35 West Wacker Drive. On 13 September 2006, the USA Rugby Congress voted itself out of governance for the national game and elected a nine-man Board with me as Chairman. Helped by stalwarts like Bob Latham, Bill Middleton, Vic Hilarov, Jen Joyce, Dave Hodges, Paul Tsuchiya, Mike Mahan and Tom Wacker, we got to work. We have met five times since September of last year.

It was great fun to spend a day in Chicago with the people from USA Rugby who do the hard yards. These are the men and women, administrators, coaches and international athletes that have been brought together by the unbreakable lineage, or whakapapa as the Maori call it, of rugby. It was a room packed full of passion. We kicked off with an inspirational video showing how many rugby skills are already incorporated in mainstream American sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer and hockey. Our message is that it is only rugby that brings them all together. Only rugby has an international fraternity for life. Only rugby is a game that is available for everyone; all genders, all shapes, all sizes.

We then went on to share the Purpose of USA Rugby, starting with our Inspirational Dream of inspiring America to fall in love with the game. We also went through our Beliefs, Spirit and Key Challenges. The USA Rugby Congress played a fantastic role in contributing to and improving the Beliefs, in particular. 2007 has been a record year for US Rugby in terms of cash, revenue, profit and investment. Brilliant new sponsors such as Sony, Setanta and Guinness have been brought on board. All three of our top teams (Eagles, Womens', and 7’s side) are improving in terms of performance and our youth teams are also moving up the rankings’ ladder. Thanks to superb leadership from our newly appointed CEO and President of Rugby Operations, Nigel Melville. Nigel is ex-captain of England, ex-Director of Rugby at Wasps and has relocated to Boulder, Colorado. This is a guy who has really got his arms around all constituents of the game here.

Then to top it off, we qualified for Rugby World Cup '07, and Sunday saw a historic match-up with the 2006 Heineken Cup European Champions – Munster. Leading 6–nil at half-time, we ran out of steam against the experienced Munster pros and lost 10-6. But it was a great day for USA Rugby and 8,600 spectators turned up for it at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire. I can tell you we’ve come a long way under ex-All Black selector Peter Thorburn, and we have the capability to surprise people in next month’s World Cup. Building bridges with Munster has been an important part of our strategy given the passionate following, particularly amongst the Irish Diaspora in the US.

Along with the fans, the local Mayor turned up and the Minister of State from Ireland came over for the game. There were also a bunch of key sponsors. This kind of interest, along with lots of kids getting involved, will provide the platform for accelerated growth in 2008 when we take the first step towards professionalism. For us to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, we’re probably going to have to beat the likes of Canada, Fiji and Tonga in the qualifying rounds if, as it looks likely, the number of qualifiers is reduced from 20 to 16. We’ll have to turn a hard core of players professional in 2008, which will in turn mean significantly increased revenue generation and funding. The world needs the US to become a playing and commercial force in rugby. Last weekend was a pretty good coming out party.


Susan Plunkett said...

"Only rugby has an international fraternity for life.

Whooo THERE is a statement born from passion and commitment. Soccer players/fans may claim similarly but I award you the goal for play statement of the day Kevin.

I admit I wince just a wee bit..just a wee the burgeoning commercialism of sport - only because I enjoyed from childhood seeing the passions emerge naturally at local grounds (e.g. Brookvale Oval) et al, long before multi-media events and multi million dollar promotions began to be THE thing.

There are narrative elements today I hope we will return to.

I do think it very clever - and important both business wise and culturally - to target/consider the diaspora.

Getting excited about the 20th? :)

Susan Plunkett said...

And way to go for the Pumas!,8659,22383146-5013519,00.html

Kempton said...

Congrats Kevin. Sounds like great progress has been made.

I would love to see a link to the video - "showing how many rugby skills are already incorporated in mainstream American sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer and hockey."

Sounds like something I might enjoy.

Piotr Jakubowski said...

I remember watching, with fervor, England's victory in the Rugby World Cup 2003. It was amazing to see the impact that someone like Jonny Wilkinson could have in the dying seconds of extra time in the final. What a way to win the trophy.

According to what I've read in the news, the Eagles didn't have a bad showing against England in their opening game this year. I think a major success could bring more interest to the game, as the US Men's Soccer team's exit from the group stage in 2002 raised some interest about the sport.

Susan Plunkett said...

Piotr.. I'm proud of what Australia put on that year and how much the populace got behind it. Yes, one has to credit Jonny for sure whilst have a quiet weep in the corner for us. :)

Allison said...

Hi Kevin,

Reading this makes me proud to be a Kiwi, way to go Kevin taking rugby to more of the world, and GO THE ALL BLACKS for the world cup!! What a great start on Saturday night, this is what my extended family has looked forward to for a few years and rugby serves as the focus for some fantastic family gatherings. Emotions will running high in our lounges over the next few weeks of the world cup! Its great to see more countries becoming involved. I hope things have gone well for the Eagles.
Happy rugby viewing
Allison NZ

steve bet on football said...

its only good for the game as a whole if more nations are developing rugby union skills...

i would love to see, a few tournements down the line, a competition which is not as good as a foregone conclusion...

All nations seen as less developed in the international rugby union scene can now take a leaf out of the argentinian teams efforts in 2007...