As I’m sure most of you know, BYU defeated Arkansas St. 49-42 in front of 8,377 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium for the DI-A national championship. There is no doubt that the match, and the whole weekend in general was a terrific event that showcased the best of what American rugby has to offer. Why is it then, that the prevailing mood surrounding the match was that this would be the last DI-A championship match and season?
The reason is simple: teams are dropping out. In just the past few weeks, teams like Texas A&M, Rutgers, and Oklahoma have chosen to leave the league. Since the league was founded in 2011, stalwart teams like Dartmouth and Cal have pulled out of the competitions. Why? Finances mostly, but there are other factors as well. The league was started with the idea that the best teams from around the country would be in the same league in order to create the highest level of quality possible. To that end, the league has been very successful. They have certainly had the highest quality of rugby in the country, as evidenced by their competitive matches and title games. In places like the West, DI-A has really brought the best teams together in a format full of rivalries. Still, teams have been dropping out because the league has failed to bring in the revenue it promised. Travel costs in the league are quite high, yet national sponsorship is fairly low and a television deal has never emerged. The promised exposure has never happened. Basically the league gives great competition, but isn’t much different than what teams had with DI-AA.
If the DI-A folds, what will happen to its current teams? All would likely return to DI-AA, but not in the same format as before. The DI-A has taught schools the importance of being in a conference with rival schools, almost mirroring their athletic conferences for NCAA sports. Leading the way in this charge was the Ivy League who in the last few years has resurrected their conference. Administrators and fans love the idea of playing in a familiar conference because it brings in more sponsorship and a sense of rivalry found in other sports. In addition to the Ivy League, conferences have sprung up that mirror the ACC and SEC, with more conferences likely falling suit. If the DI-A were to fail, similar leagues would likely crop up.
Forming a rugby conference along the lines of NCAA conferences certainly has its positives and its negatives. One of the major drawbacks of such conferences is the question of what to do with smaller schools that have excellent rugby programs that don’t fit into a typical NCAA mold. Davenport, Kutztown, and Life all come to mind, as does a school like Central Washington who play in a smaller NCAA conference. These schools risk getting left out which can only be a negative for the sport. It is no wonder that DI-A membership has often consisted of these types of schools. The danger is that these teams will get left out and forced to form their own conferences. The quality of rugby would be high, but what kind of sponsorship could they bring in? They don’t have the high profiles that some other schools can produce. Another negative is that creating rugby conferences in line with NCAA conferences means that schools with pretty poor rugby teams will be included. Parity is not always a good thing, but victories and losses of 50 points isn’t great either.
Probably the biggest plus for forming these types of conferences is the potential sponsorship they could bring. It may not be the nationwide sponsorship the DI-A was bringing in, but local sponsorship could be enough to grow individual programs. Television has always been the key to sponsorship of college athletics, and if these conferences can gain entry to the new SEC network, Big 10 network, or the PAC-12 network, then the money could flow in. Cash creates more professional programs and could help launch rugby to varsity status. Also, alumni and school administration love the idea that all of their sports roughly play the same opponents. It makes recruiting and solicitation of donations easier. Boosters who may not be into rugby may be more inclined if they see that Utah will be playing PAC-12 schools every year rather than Wyoming and Colorado State.
How all of this will shake out (assuming the DI-A doesn’t make it) is uncertain, but what is certain is that the dissatisfaction with the old system still has not gone away for some teams. If they are going to return to DI-AA, they will certainly want to change the landscape.
What do you think will happen to the DI-A? Do you think forming rugby conferences along the lines of NCAA conferences is a good idea? Share your thoughts!
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