Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
Facilities are always on the forefront of conversation in regards to rugby in America. Let’s face it; we’ve all played on insanely substandard pitches at some point in time. Actually, I would say that at least 90% of us play at least a few matches per year on questionable grounds. I’ve been on two really bad ones this spring and know of two more that I’ll be on in the fall. Unfortunately, it’s the world we live in. But how do we move forward and begin to upgrade playing fields and facilities?
I’ve been chewing on this one for a while. We could be at a watershed time period in the development of rugby in the USA and it’s time for more emphasis to be put into the development of facilities. Having a good playing facility is a recruiting tool in itself. It also allows clubs to expand their operations to include high school clubs and youth rugby. We have so few dedicated rugby facilities in the United States and they all have been obtained, developed, and grown by individual clubs across the country with their own money and sweat. Since there isn’t much that can be done for clubs that migrate from field to field every few seasons, we’ll have to focus on the clubs that either own or have some sort of usage agreement that allows them to upgrade. I don’t know how many clubs in the USA own their playing facilities (or at least have some sort of land usage agreement that allows improvements), but I can’t imagine there are more than 75. How are we supposed to grow the game of rugby in the USA to over 1,000,000 participants when the playing fields don’t even exist? Coming from other sports that have facilities, newcomers to rugby will never buy into playing on a rocky patch of grass in the middle of a public park. To raise public perception of the sport, we have to develop the facilities. Not just places like Infinity Park. Yes, we need more places like that, but we also need to bring club owned facilities up to speed with where the game is headed in the USA. Even though the club owned facilities are like an oasis compared to most of the playing fields in the USA, they are quite lacking compared to other sports in the USA. They are also behind especially compared to club facilities in rugby playing nations.
What can be done? It’s time for USA Rugby to step in and help the clubs that have their own facilities and give them a platform to improve and upgrade those facilities. A few years ago, the English RFU wanted to increase their player base by 500,000 players over the course of ten years and realized that upgrading and developing facilities was of the highest importance to achieving that goal. Since then, the RFU has set aside $604 million pounds over the next ten years for the development, renewal, and upgrade of club facilities in England. Most of that is through matching grants and no interest loans to clubs. Yeah, that’s a lot of money, but they also have a lot more facilities to work with than in the USA. The RFU’s study noted that 79% of the clubs that responded to a 2006 questionnaire had ownership or security of tenure over their grounds. That number would be less than 10% of the clubs in America.
The RFU set areas of required facility development that included:
Improved quality and quantity of natural grass pitches
Improved quality and quantity of changing provision for men, women, and youth
Improved access to artificial turf training areas
Increased quantity and quality of floodlit areas
Improved standard of social facilities
Enhanced and increased provision for spectators
This next statement will sound familiar.
“A research report of the RFU noted that funding, poor facilities and poor quality coaching and refereeing were the main barriers to participation.”
Yes, even the big dogs have the same problems that we have here in the USA. Except they have the wherewithal to do something about it. It’s time that the next step is taken to help support and grow rugby facilities here. Everywhere rugby is growing in the United States, but nothing is being said of growing rugby specific venues. What better way to do that than to get involved with the clubs that already have access.
What can be done? I understand the financial limitations that exist within USA Rugby. We all do. They’re not going to be able to set aside $500,000 per year for facility development. But would it be out of the question for them to set aside $100,000 to specifically be granted to clubs for facility development? No, it could be done. Of course, these would be matching grants. So, each club requesting a grant will have to match the amount of money requested with their own funds. Set the maximum grant at $10,000 and in the end at least 10 clubs (probably more) will be able to receive grants for specific improvement projects. That could be for re-seeding a pitch, irrigation, new posts, lighting, barriers, seating, pavilions, etc. It could also help act as collateral for clubs seeking loans for bigger projects such as adding additional pitches, building clubhouses, adding parking, concession stands/restrooms, etc. It doesn’t sound like much, but $5-$10K can go a long way towards upgrading the little things around a pitch. A special provision of $50,000 could be set aside every other year to assist one club in the purchase of land.
Ten years from now we could have a handful more clubs that own their own facilities and dozens of other clubs that have made noticeable improvements to their grounds that would not have been possible before. These all open up the doors for more participation at the club level and that trickles all the way down to youth and high school participation.
This also would give USA Rugby a chance to look into the club structure and pose some influence over the direction rugby takes in America. How are clubs being run? Do they have sustainable business practices? Are they doing their part in building the youth sector? Do they support high school rugby? Do they have a women’s team? This could be a step into a better direction for club rugby in general in the USA. Does your club want a grant? Okay, here’s a compliance list. Clubs that meet the standards will be eligible to receive grants through USA Rugby. To give clubs incentive to comply with more standards, different levels could be set up based on the standards achieved by the clubs. The more standards of practice your club complies with the more your club is eligible to request in grant money from USA Rugby.
USA Rugby could get a partner like Home Depot or Lowes to front $50,000 per year towards the grants and that only leaves $50,000 left for USA Rugby to come up with. That is a drop in the bucket for a company like Home Depot and if supporting youth programs is one of the qualification criteria then it makes the deal even sweeter.