Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
The IRB’s World Series is exploding like never before… major sponsors signing on at every turn, unprecedented media and broadcast coverage, and attendance records preparing to be broken.
These events have fallen into place like tumblers in a lock. The most inspiring and hopeful part of the rise is that the IRB has been hard out work outlining a preparing for this very moment. Sevens was already beginning to blossom and spread even years before it was included in the Olympics.
Now, with the Olympic movement, the IRB has to work harder than ever to serve the growing fan base, support development of teams, and look out for the best interests of the players on the field.
This weekend in Las Vegas, the IRB is having another round of meetings with representatives from the eight host tournaments on the HSBC World Series. These meetings are to detail and prepare for the future of the World Series and the Olympics.
One this is very clear… changes are coming.
The great part about sevens is that there is always that chance, albeit slight in some cases, that an underdog can pull off some magic and topple one of the big boys. As the game advances, the professionalism in each camp is growing and now a number of teams are paying good salaries to sevens players. A thought that was unheard of even five years ago.
With that progression, a divide is beginning to form between the Top 10 teams on the circuit and all of the rest. Breaking in to become a “core” member of the World Series is harder than ever. The USA was the last non-core team to break into the ranks when they went from attending six tournaments in 2007/2008 to “core” status in 2008/2009.
The qualification process to become a “core” member is also cloudy. In each of the past two seasons a core member of the series has scored fewer points than a non-core team, yet no changes were made to the lineup. France scored below Portugal in 2008/2009 and then both Scotland and France were below Canada in 2009/2010.
Sources have also informed me that the current lineup of core members is not expected to change before next season regardless of how teams finish in the standings.
The number of non-core teams picking up points on the World Series also appears to be diminishing. In 2007/2008, five different non-core teams scored points on the World Series followed by four teams in 2008/2009. Those numbers were followed by a big drop in 2009/2010 with only one non-core team (Canada) scoring World Series points. Three tournaments into this season, there hasn’t been a single non-core team pick up any points.
“The challenge of becoming a core member – in short – very tough indeed. We invested in our program and won points on the circuit attending just three and then five events. Discount the teams that will be there no matter how badly they play, Scotland and France have always been in the lower regions of the table and you see how hard it is,” said USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville.
If teams can’t score points, then there is no way for them to force their way into full status on the World Series.
If teams can’t compete in more tournaments, then they can’t get better and make a push for the Olympics.
What sevens absolutely cannot have is a similar divide that has been fostered and supported in the full 15-a side version of rugby. The nature of sevens will always give teams a much better chance than in 15’s, but the difficulty level is increasing yearly.
Fortunately, the IRB and tournament leaders are already addressing these concerns and preparing a strategic plan for sevens moving forward. The plan is just as much about fostering development as it is about keeping the momentum (and $$$) flowing.
“The circuit is developing into a great property for the IRB, more teams will participate in the future, maybe less core teams and more regionally based events would help,” added Melville.
A few of the topics being tabled include increasing the number of World Series events to ten, increasing the number of teams at each tournament to 20 or 24, and the possibility of some sort of revenue sharing to help offset the costs for teams playing on the World Series.
The topic of interest to me is increasing the number of teams at each tournament. Hong Kong has always been a favorite stop on the World Series and one of their calling cards is the extra teams that get to participate. Getting more teams involved on the World Series is vital to keep the gap from growing.
Increasing the number of teams at each event also allows the IRB to put forth more concrete criteria for becoming a “core” member of the series. It may also allow them to add a few more core members and take away the pressure that may come with ousting teams like France or Scotland from the circuit.
Or maybe the IRB goes in another direction and cuts back on the core teams?
With a couple extra tournaments on the series, only marquee teams, that draw fans at all stops, may need to participate in all events. The list could be very short with teams like New Zealand, England, Fiji and/or Samoa. The big problem with that route is that you make it virtually impossible for another team such as the United States, Wales or Kenya to ever become World Series Champion. Unseating the likes of New Zealand or England is hard enough. Take away a couple opportunities to pick up points and there is no way to catch them.
Perhaps being a core team may entail participating in eight of the ten proposed tournaments and taking two off every season.
Going that route opens up the door for some other teams to get experience playing in the Cup round and winning points. Right now, there are only 8-10 teams capable of reaching the Cup. All of which attend every tournament. Take away a few of those teams at every tournament and then the chances improve for others to not only reach the cup, but to possibly win it.
This is a very exciting development in my eyes, even more so than adding a couple more events. I cannot stress enough how the diversity of rugby sevens is one of the key factors helping vault the game to stardom.
Take Las Vegas for example. Had the USA 7’s been a 24 team event, then teams like Mexico, Russia, Jamaica, Cuba, Portugal, Zimbabwe, Tonga, and China among many others could have been in the field.
More diversity… more development… more world class athletes… more excitement. That is what Olympic Rugby is going to be about!
Adding events is a double-edge sword. Aside from a few teams on the World Series, many of the teams run on tight budgets. Adding two more events increases the burden on those already cash strapped unions.
“Increasing the number of events means that the core teams have to increase their financial commitment, there is limited sponsorship coming back to the teams, the events will get stronger and start to generate money, but the teams are the ones putting on the show at their own expense. This will have to change,” said Melville in regards to the thought of an expanded World Series.
As Olympic Rugby grows, so will the amount of money that the IRB is making from the events and broadcast rights. They will have to explore sharing some of those profits with the teams and players that are providing the spectacle.
Another issue being discussed is in regard to player safety. With the proposed increased number of teams at each event, the days will get longer on the participants. Playing two, three-day tournaments on back-to-back weekends is incredibly difficult on players. While nothing has been confirmed, extending tournaments any longer than three days is being discussed.
While that will indeed help with player welfare, it may also cut into profits from the events as fans will find it difficult to attend four and five day tournaments. In return they may only turn out for the final couple of days.
The compromise may be the end of playing tournaments on consecutive weekends. The HSBC World Series currently spans over the course of six months from late November to late May. Ten tournaments could easily fit into that time frame without playing consecutive weeks.
Hopefully the discussions taking place will also include the organization of a Women’s World Series which is desperately needed for the continued growth of women’s rugby. Running an abbreviated version of the World Series alongside select events, such as the Las Vegas 7’s, would be a major boost for Women’s 7’s.
Las Vegas is hosting an International Women’s 7’s competition this weekend that could easily be transformed into a leg of the Women’s World Series. This is a progression that should have taken place already and needs to be put in place sooner rather than later.
The final, and perhaps most important, piece of the strategic plan includes the qualifying process for the 2016 Olympics. The International Olympic Committee requires that every participating union get at least two opportunities to qualify.
I waded through this subject in July of 2010 using the Olympic Basketball qualifying process as a model. It is going to be tough to qualify in nearly every region, so the plan is going to need to be clear and concise. This is going to be a hot topic for the next couple of years and probably even after qualification begins. With only 12 teams in the Olympic Rugby field and representation coming from all regions, some very good teams will be left out.
To see the article I wrote last year, follow this link.
In the next decade, the landscape of rugby could very well be changed by Olympic Rugby and with that a new rank and file of competitive teams.
It is a very exciting time for rugby on all fronts. As sevens really begins to explode, it is crucial that careful and calculated planning for the next stage take precedence over emotional or political pressure. Just as sevens has played a role in developing players for 15’s over the years, the game now ushers in a new era for the game in America as well as areas of the world that have yet to feel the power of rugby.