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Time for Board to Walk the Walk

Wednesday Sep 9, 2009 in Off the Field USA Rugby

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(Below is an opinion column by Alex Goff. It covers a lot of issues and we apologize for its length. To help you navigate we have installed a few tags on specific topics so you can read specifically about your own pet issue: Office of CEO, Webcasts, Major Sponsorships, Competitions Audit, National Team Funding, Membership Growth and Turnover, State-Based Organizations, Board Transparency)

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As far as the membership of USA Rugby is concerned, when the USA Rugby Board of Directors and USA Rugby Congress meet in Dallas this coming weekend they will have much to consider but even more to answer for.
 
The Board as it now structured was voted into place in early 2006 and was immediately charged with redrawing USA Rugby’s big picture. More sponsorships, increased fundraising, competitions changes, a new transparency, and new blood in the National Office were all expected.
 
Some of those grand developments have come to fruition, many more have not, and today’s Board workings are more opaque than ever.
 
While quickly hiring Nigel Melville was a positive move (why was the speed of that decision something to crow about? See below.), not everyone thinks Melville is such a great CEO, and many more believe his roll of holding two jobs – CEO and Director of Rugby Operations is a bad idea.
 
On the plus side, Melville has helped improve relations with the IRB, significantly increased sponsorships revenue, championed the development of Rookie Rugby, and supported benefits for members, such as discount programs for merchandise and car rentals. And the British-born Melville also fostered a much-improved relationship with ESPN, which heretofore acted as if rugby didn’t exist. American rugby is on television (i.e. ESPN’s coverage of USA v. Canada, live) like never before.
 
In addition, Melville took the job at a time when the USA had virtually no games on their schedule outside of the Churchill Cup and the World Cup. He worked hard to change that and succeeded.
 
But … USA Rugby is horribly cash-strapped at present. There continues to be big turnover at the national office. As for Rookie Rugby, USA Rugby is great at rolling things out. Giving programs staying power is the problem. (Remember the College Commitment a few years ago under Doug Arnot? Supposedly USA Rugby had identified college rugby as THE WAY FORWARD, made it at least seem like they'd have people to meet with Athletic Directors and the like to help rugby's status on campus. None of that happened except a few conference calls.)
 
Melville’s background as an English-trained rugby player can be helpful in some ways, but as everyone screams that we need to provide a link from high school to good college programs to good club programs, it’s also a drawback. Melville has been criticized as too slow to recognize the growth potential of varsity rugby (varsity in attitude if not in actual fact). Short shrift on the women’s varsity movement, the allowance of graduated players on high school teams, and allowing the IRB to dictate how to develop players have hurt the sport’s momentum.
 
As for webcasts, are we happy with any quality, as long as we see hours of video? Can USA Rugby afford to produce games for air on TV and can Melville, a marketing person (remember David Voth left) or Board Members do something to leverage that into real marketing dollars?
 
How about major sponsorships? While the National Guard sponsorship is the biggest deal USA Rugby has ever had, the Board had no role in coming up with or finalizing that deal. Vice Chair Bob Latham told ERugbyNews that the Board deserves some credit for the fact the USNG renewed the deal in 2008 – so if they don’t come back for 2009-2010 does that mean it’s the Board fault? (One of the great things about that program is that it provided kit to college and youth teams – a direct benefit to teams and players at the grassroots level.)
 
Remember … the Board was changed to a small group of people successful in business precisely so USA Rugby could get more marketing and investment income. Take away increased IRB Grants, membership dues and the National Guard, and there really hasn’t been much improvement in income levels. Where is that so-called business expertise?
 
In 2006 the Competitions Audit was supposed to come up with a blueprint to change and manage all USA Rugby’s men’s and college competitions. Changes weren’t guaranteed, but the Board was to receive a report and work toward recommendations. Virtually nothing happened. We heard talk of changing the summer 7s competition, of creating a national collegiate league.

The only changes were to merge territories into Competitive Regions for the DI men’s competition, and the most recent change – the formation of the Women’s Premier League. Both were driven by individuals within the organization who championed that change, as opposed to being part of a larger plan to fix things.
 
The Competitions report lay fallow and instead we have the same schedule we’ve always had, except the men’s National All-Star Championships was eliminated with no replacement event formed.

You start to get the feeling the Board doesn’t really know what to do, and has therefore opted for nothing.
 
As for the Men’s National Team, the Board’s virtual guarantee of funding for at least semi-professionalize players disappeared into the ether. On his blog, Chairman Kevin Roberts (who, by the way, has been distinctly absent from any USA Rugby event) originally touted the plan and then abruptly stopped because USA Rugby has nowhere near the money to do this and in fact the MNT is cash-strapped despite huge IRB grants. A plan to form a sponsorship and commercial committee was never followed up on.
 
The upshot? The USA men’s team is 6-19 in test matches since the beginning of 2006, and 6-24 overall while using a head coach paid several times what Tom Billups (12-20 in tests 2001-2005). The women’s team started that period 7-2, then went 0-6 before winning two and tying one in their last three games.
 
The 7s teams have done better than that. That’s in part because the USA 7s tournament is not a USA Rugby event, and has promoted itself by sponsoring the USA men’s team. Meanwhile the women got extra funding mostly through the legwork of coach Julie McCoy.
 
It’s interesting to note that the current plan to possibly professionalize the 7s team comes from outside USA Rugby.
 
As a result of the funding bait-and-switch, Scott Johnson (a poor or inspired choice for Eagle head coach depending on who you ask) quit the job after a year and moved to Wales.
 
Men’s National Team players continue to be jerked around. They are expected to be available for long periods of time, which often means they have to quit jobs, take leaves of absence, or take jobs that are very low-paying. Health insurance is a huge issue for the players, who can be forced into financial hardship thanks to rugby injuries.
 
No one on the Board has taken this on as a cause.
 
On the membership side, USA Rugby’s base continues to grow, but very slowly. In 2002 USA Rugby membership surpassed 50,000. This year they expect more than 100,000. That’s a 10 percent average growth when we should be expecting at least the occasional 20-50 percent jump. Most would say the increase is due to the attraction of the game, and the hard work of many coaches and game advocates in schools, clubs and communities around the country rather than anything the home office has done.

Or … put it in another context. With over $3 million in membership dues, what could you do?
 
Membership turnover is still huge – as much as 40 percent of players leave the rolls every year.

And in fact you could argue that membership in some areas is falling. From 2005 to 2008, membership in men’s college teams rose 5,720 and in boys’ U19/HS rose 6,950. In the same period men’s club team membership rose 4,500. On the women’s side it’s more pronounced but at a different level: High school participation is up 1,660, while college is up only 720 (!) and senior club up 1,030.

The message there is, the pool of young people who take up rugby is growing, and the senior levels, despite that extra pool of potential players (along with those new to the sport as adults) are growing at a far slower rate.

These numbers come from Nigel Melville’s 2009 Halftime Report. Will the Board read those numbers, look deeply into them, and try to find solutions?

This phenomenon of yearly loss of members has been known for about 10 years, and yet no successful and viable plan has been put in place to track these people and keep them as potential coaches, referees, or fans.
 
Two years ago USA Rugby started their State-Based Rugby Organization program to recognize these U19/HS/Youth groups and start working with them. IRB money was used to pilot programs within those states and then … well, nothing. No progress was made on adding more SBOs to the list of 14 (despite there being other SBOs that wanted in). Not until June did we see any meaningful outreach to SBOs.
 
But really this is another example of no one on the Board following through on something everyone agrees is important. Fourteen SBOs was a good start, but being at the same number two years later is inexcusable.
 
The State-Based Organization and Territorial Unions problem is not a new one. The issue of how SBOs deal with their Local-Area and TUs has existed since 2003 (and was the subject of much discussion at a youth rugby summit in Boulder in 2004). Again, nothing has been done. SBOs must be members of their Territories to qualify for the national championships, despite many feeling they shouldn’t have to be, and despite the fact many in USA Rugby say privately they shouldn’t be.
 
Nigel Melville said in a February interview with Rugby Magazine that a plan needs to be implemented that allows SBOs to be members of USA Rugby directly, without having to be part of a Territorial Union. Some TUs continue to charge dues to U19 players, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars that could be put to use more locally.
 
Administration software to assist SBOs in player registration is slated to be unveiled in November of this year. But have we settled the question of the SBO/TU relationship? It hasn’t happened yet and there seems to be no plan linking the world of high school rugby with the world of college rugby. It’s all based on an old club rugby model and every other square peg is squished to fit that round hole.
  
These are just a few examples, but they are examples of some very big issues that have been part of USA Rugby’s list of problems for several years. Many of these problems don’t require money, which could be in short supply, they require elbow grease and a little brain power.

We won’t go into solutions here, it will take too long. But we do know there are smart, hard-working people out there who could take on some of these issues, work up solutions, and get people to agree on them.
 
Or maybe solutions require a membership to email their Board Members and Congress Members to tell them to want to see action, not words and promises. Tell them what you think is important, and demand they represent your interests.

Is the Board doing something about them? How would we know, seeing as they bristle at any implication that they be asked to account for their actions. They work in secrecy, pat the membership (and the Congress) and say “it’s being taken care of” and expect us to just accept that.

As one Congressmember said with regard to the nominations of Bill Middleton and Peter Seccia for Board positions (Seccia for the first time, Middleton for the second):
"Here we are, just a few days from the Congress meeting on September 12th, where we're supposed to ratify these two nominations, and we know nothing about one of them. We have not been afforded an opportunity, not a single minute, to ask Mr. Seccia, and indeed Mr. Middleton, what they're bringing to the table. (And as usual, we don't know who else was considered.) Mr. Middleton hasn't defended his time on the board by explaining to us what he has done and what he will do. Mr. Seccia hasn't introduced himself, let alone say what he brings to the table.

This smacks of another expectation that the Congress is to unconditionally go along with whatever the board wants to do."

 
Members of the Congress continue to ask for more transparency from the Board and more concrete measurements of what they claim they are doing. Members of USA Rugby should be asking the same questions. And if no answers are coming, you have the right to demand change.
 
USA Rugby Board of Directors Contacts:
Kevin Roberts Chairman of the Board kroberts@usarugby.org
Bob Latham Vice-Chairman blatham@usarugby.org
John Mullett Congress Representative jmullett@usarugby.org
Francois Viljoen International Athlete fviljoen@usarugby.org
Jen Joyce International Athlete jjoyce@usarugby.org
Bill Middleton  bmiddleton@usarugby.org
Paul Tsuchiya  ptsuchiya@usarugby.org
Tom Wacker  twacker@usarugby.org
Peter Seccia (Nominated for possible new term to be ratified)
 
Congress Representatives
International Athletes
Annie Collier annie.collier@gmail.com
Farrah Douglas fddougla@gmail.com
Mark Griffin griffrugby@yahoo.com
Dan Lyle danlyle8@msn.com
Chris Osentowski  osentowski@hotmail.com
Ines Rodriguez ines2@vet.upenn.edu
 
Mid-Atlantic Territorial Union
Dana Bateman danabatemn@aol.com
George Durocher durocher01@comcast.net
Eric Pittelkau epittelkau@gmail.com  
 
Midwest Territorial Union
Jeremiah Johnson jkjhooks@hotmail.com
Tom Schmitt wirugby@aol.com
Adrian Gannon rugbyteacher@sbcglobal.net
 
Northeast Territorial Union
Bruce Church bruce@gnsbiotech.com
Clay Gardner clayton.gardner@us.army.mil
Gary Lee Heavner gary@heavner.net
 
Pacific Coast Territorial Union
Frank Merrill fmmjrdvm@sbcglobal.net
Ellen Owens ellenowens@sbcglobal.net
David Pelton david.pelton@microsoft.com
 
Southern California Territorial Union
Paul Ganey scrfu@earthlink.net
Patrick Guthrie pguthrie100@yahoo.com
Steve Vent stevevent@gmail.com
 
South Territorial Union
Martin Gardner lmdcg@comcast.net
Pat Kane pmkane78@aol.com
Danita Knox danita.knox@ge.com
 
West Territorial Union
Bill Sexton wsexton@atsu.edu
Alan Sharpley sharpley@dynastat.com
John Wolf jawolf4@aol.com  
 

- Alex Goff
Goff on Rugby | More articles in “USA Rugby” | More articles in “Off the Field”