American rugby dream turns sour

Scotland and the USA last played at the 2015 Rugby World Cup when the Scots won 39-16 at Elland Road. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Scotland and the USA last played at the 2015 Rugby World Cup when the Scots won 39-16 at Elland Road. Photograph: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
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Scotland play the USA next Saturday in Houston and while the Eagles are expected to put up a brave fight on the field of play the really important battles in American rugby are being fought in the boardroom, with two Scots at the centre of the maelstrom.

Former West of Scotland centre Steve Lewis, a coach with a level four certificate and huge experience, has been personally responsible for toppling about half of the USA Rugby board, which he considered a rotten edifice. Another Scot, the interim chief executive (and ongoing chief operating officer), Ross Young has the unenviable task and putting the whole thing back together again.

The two are good pals, still, and both are working hard for the betterment of rugby in America, even if they are coming at it from different angles.

The problem was RIM (Rugby International Marketing). When it was set up, the marketing arm of USA Rugby was supposed to be a money spinner, but instead it has run up huge debts that have effectively bankrupted it and put its parent union under severe pressure.

RIM launched “The Rugby Channel” but it lost $4.2 million in 2017 alone before it was sold for pennies earlier this year.

Further losses were sustained when South Africa played Wales in Washington DC only last weekend. Played outside the official Test window in return for a guaranteed fee, both nations fielded scratch teams and the game attracted just 21,000 spectators when at least 27,000 were needed just for RIM to break even.

Lewis noted RIM was drowning, not waving, over a year ago and got himself voted on to Congress, the body that oversees the USA Rugby board, their equivalent of Scottish Rugby’s Council, only with teeth. In February of 2017 the chairman Will Chang asked for a vote of confidence and got 43 votes in favour, with one dissenting voice… Lewis.

Fast forward to August of 2017, RIM’s finances are unravelling faster than a Russian oligarch’s and Lewis proposes an effective vote of no confidence in the board. This time he gets seven votes and about the same number of abstentions. It’s not enough to force resignations but the tide has turned.

Bringing the story up to date and the scaremongering Scot has been proven right because RIM is worthless, the board belatedly conceded as much in April, and five of the six directors deemed responsible for the fiasco have resigned including board chairman Will Chang but only after the threat of recall, which would have required Congress to vote on their positions.

England’s Rugby Football Union, which invested £1.4m or £2.1m (depending upon who you believe), has written off its money, as have Harlequins, who also invested. Another investor, the high profile sports marketing agency CSM, is said to be agitating for some sort of compensation.

RIM was given rights by USA Rugby in return for an annual fixed sum (said to be $1.8m) but following RIM’s financial implosion that money is no longer forthcoming. USA Rugby has had to go cap in hand to World Rugby who have offered them a line of credit to ensure the smooth delivery of their very own baby, the Sevens World Cup, scheduled for July in San Francisco. However contrary to some reports Young insists that the union itself does not need support since his immediate predecessor Dan Payne left a contingency fund.

Along with five board members USA Rugby also lost their chief executive Payne who, bizarrely, had no control over RIM and is largely blameless for what happened. Payne has joined World Rugby as boss of Rugby Americas, overseeing World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot’s latest venture, a Pan American elite tournament at a regional level.

Young has stepped into his shoes, on an interim basis, although he has put his hand up for the permanent position. The Scot was with the Met Police for 15 years and Dick Best invited him to join Harlequins before Young cemented his reputation in rugby admin by overseeing every World Cup from 2003 to 2015 (although he stepped back from the last one before the tournament kicked off).

One of nature’s positive people, Young concedes that errors of judgment occurred with RIM but insists that they were made with good intentions. He also adds that the whole unseemly rush to grab a slice of the USA rugby pie, “so many people banging on the door” is how he puts it, probably blinded a few investors to the dangers involved.

“I agree with the concept of what they were trying to do,” says Young of RIM, “but how it was executed just didn’t make sense and the knock on effect has been pretty dire.”

The Guinness Pro14 was in talks about North American clubs joining and a US Super Rugby franchise was mooted, but if the latter competition has taught us anything it is surely that America’s rugby future lies within its own time zones.

“I completely agree with you,” says Young, before addressing the issues on his doorstep.

“I genuinely don’t think that there are any problems here that are insurmountable. We need to grow the game from the bottom up, get more young players playing and use events like the [sevens] Rugby World Cup to keep driving the profile of rugby. We won’t be successful until we increase overall participation.

“The MLR [Major League Rugby] has proved a huge success in its first season with Seattle, selling out the stadium and attracting 5,000 fans for every game. When I was with Harlequins at the start of professionalism I remember we got 1,200 for a game against Sale!”

Young talks enthusiastically about rugby in the USA, pointing out that the game has already moved into the mainstream. He mentions a Toyota advert that features a rugby mom, rather than the ubiquitous soccer equivalent, complete with posts in the background. The Marines Corps ran an advert in the middle of the Super Bowl which extolled rugby’s virtues as being in line with their own code.

On 3 November there is a triple header in Chicago, USA Women versus Black Ferns, Ireland versus Italy and the Eagles versus All Black Maoris, which will fill the 62,000 seat stadium and some.

Young is quick to point out the positives but he has some serious reconstruction work to do on governance, finances and, not least, USA Rugby’s reputation while delivering a top class Sevens World Cup next month.

At least the projected ticket sales are looking good. The stadium holds 42,000 and sales are already 85,000-plus for the three-day event. It won’t sell out or solve USA Rugby’s financial plight but the tournament will be delivered and, in turn, looks like it will deliver.

“We are not a sleeping giant,” Young says in reference to the oft utilised phrase used to describe USA rugby. “We have woken up and are staggering around but we have to get the bugger headed in the right direction!”

And for the immediate future?

“For the first time every player in the Eagles squad has some experience of professional rugby,” says Young. “I hope that shows against Russia this weekend and I hope we scare the living daylights out of Scotland in Houston.”