Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
Call it fate, kismet, chance, karma or whatever you will.
In one of the most talked about developments in recent years, Utah-based entrepreneur and business man Sean Whalen has thrown his hat into the ring with his backing of the new Utah Warriors rugby team.
No 50/50 raffles, no funding from Old Boys, and no caution tape on the sidelines. The Warriors are an anomaly in American rugby in that they are not a club, but a team built on a business model without club politics to interfere with the business of playing rugby and taking the sport to the next level.
Whalen comes to the sport from a business standpoint, but also has seen first-hand the passion of rugby fans abroad. Business took Whalen abroad many times over the years and in that time, he came to learn and enjoy the sport of rugby.
“Going to Europe, I was inundated with it. I see that passion and I think we’d be foolish if we didn’t believe that it could happen here,” said Whalen.
“I got pretty hooked on it and I’m glad that I did.”
However, it was fortune that led Whalen and the Warriors to where they are right now.
“A few months ago at the gym I overheard a friend of mine, Gary Brown, talking about the team and that some financial support had backed out,” added Whalen.
“I nonchalantly said that if anything opened up, that I’d love to help out. Not long after he said that we might be able to put something together and he put me in contact with Sean Kelly (RSL President) and Jon Law (now Head Coach of the Utah Warriors) and discussions began.”
With that, events were set in motion for the creation of the Utah Warriors and quite possibly the changing of the elite rugby landscape in America. The Warriors are prepared for stiff competition as they have been admitted into the USA Rugby Super League for the 2011 season. Undaunted, they are ready to step in and compete right out of the gates.
“I won’t mince words, our goal is to win the championship our first year,” says Whalen. “I believe the talent is on the field to make it happen.”
The Utah Warriors also plan to make a splash in the 7’s world. With two high-profile 7’s players already signed to the squad (Mike Palefau & Jason Pye) the team could very well find themselves in the mix for 7’s titles in the near future. The team is nearing a final roster and will make their debut at the Las Vegas Invitational that takes place in February at the USA 7’s.
However, wins & losses are no longer the full barometer for success. With the benefits of having this new form of rugby team also comes the need and pressure for success off the field.
“The measure of success, for me, is to walk through the mall and see a guy with a rugby shirt, a warriors jacket, having people come out to our free clinics,” adds Whalen.
To do so, Whalen is bringing his business savvy and marketing plans to the Salt Lake City community, which is already known as a strong rugby area.
“One of the things we want to be heavily involved with is the community. Our measure of success is that people are talking about it, people are buying the gear, and ultimately the media wants to talk about it.”
Make no bones about it, while Whalen and the Warrior’s staff envision immediate success competitively for the team, in order to lead the way into a new era for the Super League and rugby at the highest levels in America… money needs to be made or at the very least not lost.
“This is not a pro bono deal; I’m not looking to lose money every year on this. I ran the numbers, I looked at it and realized what the cost would be. I checked it off and once I felt comfortable with it as a business decision, it became more of an emotional thing,” said Whalen.
Obtaining admission into the Super League was one of the first and possibly one of the toughest hurdles to clear. Anchored by some of the longest running and most successful clubs in America, the Super League has often stood in the way of their own progress.
“If they didn’t want us, they wouldn’t have approved the team,” says Whalen.
Despite the fact that the Warriors represented a significant opportunity for the Super League and the future, the vote was not unanimous. Super League President, Sean Kelly was at the front in support of the Utah Warriors and may have ultimately been the one to get the vote in Utah’s favor.
“Bless his heart; Sean Kelly was really the one that worried the most. He had to pitch it, take the concept and ideas to the league,” said a grateful Whalen.
Knowing that some teams in the Super League tried to keep them out, Whalen painted a positive picture of the support that he and the Utah Warriors have received from the other Super League teams. He also knows that just as he can provide benefit to the Super League from a business standpoint that the Warriors also have plenty to learn from their competitors.
“This (Utah Warriors) is not a club team that has been around for 20 years, there’s a lot that we can learn from them,” said Whalen.
Now that the seal has been broken, could the Utah Warriors be the harbinger for change in the Super League?
With a team in place working as a true business, the time may have come for the Super League to show their true colors and decide once and for all whether they want to take the next step to grow the RSL into something more than an amateur competition or continue to protect their own territory and play as a step above Division 1.
Whalen thinks that this is just the beginning for the Super League and hopes that he and the Utah Warriors serve as a catalyst for change.
Added Whalen, “I’ve been up front, direct, and straight forward as to my intention to grow the Super League. I feel like there are some very radical, but simple changes needed to be made. I bet you the Super League changes dramatically soon here. Not in the next few weeks, but over the next couple of years.”
Whalen might not be the only one either. Positive exposure and a good bottom line could very well lead to others getting involved using similar business models. Just in the past few months the MLS franchise Sporting Kansas City have completely rebranded and hinted at getting involved in rugby. Don’t be surprised to find out they are watching the Utah Warriors closely.
While attempts to get into the Super League by the Glendale Raptors have been repeatedly denied, it may only now be a matter of time before a franchise like the Raptors (and the resources they possess) are a necessity for the Super League as it is pushed forward by a trend towards professionalism.
Even more may grow up through the networks if the Warriors prove to be successful.
“I believe that there are dozens of guys like me around the country, just waiting to jump in on a deal like this,” finished Whalen.
For the first time in years, the coming of the new Super League season will be met with anticipation from more than just the clubs and players involved.
Where things go from here is a story yet to be written.