Rugby America

Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective

Quality Over Quantity?

by Ted Hardy

As Americans, we want to be successful at everything. Let me correct that, we want to be the best at everything. Call it what you will, but that is how most of us are wired and it isn’t a bad thing at all. Nothing wrong with being competitive and striving for greatness whether you’re in business, sports, or mowing your lawn.

This concept certainly applies to rugby, where America has made major strides, but in comparison to the major rugby playing nations… we fall considerably short on success. This is all relative, since the USA would easily beat the majority of rugby playing nations in the world. However, we’re in the business of being the best, so until the USA is hoisting the Webb Ellis, we will continue to chase the goal.

The only true sustainable pathway to the promised land of the IRB Top 5 is the developement of grassroots rugby. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll continue to preach it in the future. It is going to be a long and hard road, but it is the only way. Talks of professional leagues and sending players overseas will only get us so far. What is needed is a massive player base in which to draw upon athletes. Otherwise any success will only be short lived and fleeting. By massive player base, that means youth, high school, college, and even adults. We need opportunities for all age groups. We have roughly 100,000 registered rugby players in America. When that number approaches 1,000,000 I guarantee that our national teams will begin to see improved results.

This begs the question… do we need quality over quantity or is it the other way around? That really shouldn’t even be a question right? Quality should always win out. In regards to this conversation, I’m not so sure. Perhaps we, the American rugby community, have to rethink our strategy. We should be looking for quality and quantity with possibly an edge being given to quantity because the sport needs to be passed along by any means neccessary.

There are some very well established and high quality rugby clubs in America. They have earned their place with hard work and sacrifice by generations of players. I would never dream of downplaying their success. They are the cornerstone of the rugby community and most metropolitan areas in America have a longstanding rugby club in their community. These same clubs, along with so many others, have been vital to the growth of youth rugby in America.

Now is the time to begin to spread our reach into every community, not just the big ones.

How many new rugby clubs have cropped up in your area in the last five years? Ten years? By new rugby clubs, I am referring to men’s and women’s teams. The growth of youth and high school rugby is well documented and spreading like wildfire. That growth has much to do with the adult playing base in America. As active players become Old Boys/Girls they often start youth and high school programs in their respective towns and communities. So, you can see how a massive increase in the adult playing base can pay off dividends down the road. If the goal is a youth rugby program in every community, I think we need a lot more adult rugby clubs to help foster and support that goal.

Back to the above question. How many new clubs/teams? Unless we’re talking about sevens, there haven’t been many new clubs estabilshed. Now, how many clubs do you know that have folded? Probably about the same number or sadly more. Back in the old days of Rugby Magazine (you know… when it was something that showed up in your mailbox), they used to have a yearly breakdown of the number of clubs in each territory. I always found it interesting, but a bit worrying that even 6-7 years ago there was a bit of stagnation in regards to the growth of adult club rugby.

There are many factors that play into club rugby… funding, access to facilities, and a host of others that have been giving administrators headaches for decades. It is just not that easy to start or maintain a club. In this day and age, USA Rugby and the rugby community should be making it easier to grow the game, not the other way around. In fact, a pretty good argument could be made that spreading the word of rugby should trump all other goals. This is an area where I see a major opportunity for improvement.

Our quest for the immediate gratification of success has blinded many of us. We’ve all heard the arguments about rugby communities that support multiple teams. Some support the idea of providing a variety of opportunities for players of all levels. Others would rather see all but one team eliminated to make the strongest competitive team possible. I appreciate the determination and respect it, but it is blind ambition. It’s perfectly fine to strive to be the best, but not at the cost of the long term goal of growing the game of rugby at all levels in the United States. Growing the player base has a profound impact on the money invested in the sport and has proven to be a positive factor on the growth of youth and high school rugby.  Both things that we want in America.

I think USA Rugby has done a pretty solid job supporting and promoting growth in the youth and high school sector, but I worry that the streamlining approach they have taken with club rugby may cost us playing numbers down the road. Their focus on club rugby has been centered on championships and playoff scenarios that ultimately serve only a small portion of the playing population.

What could be done to help support and foster the growth of new clubs in America? Certainly some brave souls are needed to bite the bullet and start new clubs. Perhaps a mechanism that allows players associated with new clubs to also participate with more competitive clubs while the new club is getting established? Could USA Rugby waive some fees for new clubs that also establish youth programs?

In the end, a youth program in every town should be our goal. We’re well on our way. To help get there, we need a lot more adults introduced to the game.

What do you think?

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2 comments on “Quality Over Quantity?

  1. Sevens PhD (@SevensPhD)
    November 16, 2012

    There has been numerous academic studies on the subject of top-down or bottom-up approaches to sport development, and although some academics will find arguments for bottom-up, it’s the top-down approach that has more data proving it works in most countries. There needs to be a clear professional or at least NCAA-type goal to drive mass participation numbers. Governing bodies cannot ignore developing and nurturing grassroots, however they need to implement a top-level structure with clear pathways to attract athletes to the sport. Look at soccer, which has enjoyed a plethora of grassroots participation for decades, but lacked world class elite men’s teams until after they hosted the FIFA World Cup and invested heavily in the MLS. USA soccer is not to the standards of Brazil/Spain/Germany types, but has made huge strides recently beating Italy and Mexico at home. Imagine how excited you would be if USA Rugby beat Samoa/Scotland/Italy and stayed relatively competitive with the top tier….

    Look at Australia, where I live. Rugby union is struggling to compete with league and aussie rules in participation and audience because a lack of professional opportunities. Both those leagues have 20+ full professional teams and 100s of semi-pro teams, and each have a billion dollar broadcast deal. Union has only 5 pro teams and a very weak broadcast deal where most games are only shown on pay-tv. So the depth of Australia rugby is diminishing, as evidenced by the current performance of the national team and the percent of foreign born players on the roster.

    The better genetically-gifted athletes will chase the money and/or fame; therefore, will choose sports that have professional and/or media-rich opportunities. Of course, the resources, media attention, and pride of the Olympics (top-down approach) has already led to increased participation (especially with women). Youth/high schools/colleges are beginning to accept rugby more often…resulting in more grassroots opportunities.

  2. RugbyAmerica
    November 18, 2012

    Thanks for the input. I’m not surprised to hear about the data you referred to. After all, money drives all. If it weren’t for the money there would be a handful of NFL players and even more college stars still playing rugby. The whole situation is the epitome of the “chicken and the egg” when it comes to America. We really do need some sort of professional level to give our players something to strive towards. The Olympics are great but will only get us so far. Unfortunately in this current financial state, without a playing base to provide athletes and fans, it is going to be a tough sell to investors that will have to live in the shadow of our big three sports. Out of our two choices, building the grassroots game is the only one where we can all actively create change. Well… unless I win the lottery then it is game on.

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2012 by in Club Rugby, Editorials, High School/U19 Rugby, Men's Club, Women's Club, Youth Rugby.

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