The changing structure of individual rugby conferences and clubs in the U.S. is not unusual. Every year it seems that a new college conference is created, or a new club team emerges. Just over the last few year the DI-A has been created, as have the Glendale Raptors and the Utah Warriors (let’s not talk about the last one). However, beginning in the spring of 2013, college and club rugby are going to be vastly different than in previous years, particularly at the top. For the first time most of the top college teams in the country will not be competition for a U.S.A. Rugby sanctioned championship, and the Rugby Super League will not hold a regular season and will turn into a cup competition.
However, before fans worry and lose sleep over the changes, it’s good for them to know that these changes are positive. There are plenty of concerns to go along with these changes, but in the end the Eagles, All-Americans, and everyone involved with benefit.
Super League Cup
Earlier this week U.S.A. Rugby announced that they would be changing the structure of club rugby. The biggest change is that the Super League will cease to exist in its current form and that all its teams will become DI. U.S.A. Rugby will also be evaluating clubs based on their strengths on and off the pitch to better assign them into DI, DII, or DIII. The fact that the Super League is ceasing to exist in its current form should not be surprising. Over the last few years, either because of territorial union rules (Chicago Lions, Chicago Griffins), competitive issues, or financial issues, the Super League has hemorrhaged members. This spring the league would have been down to seven or eight teams. The teams that did remain were committed to the league and were arguably the strongest teams in the country (OPSB, SFGG, NYAC). However, costs would be high and in order for the competition to survive it needed to revamp itself.
Thus, the cup competition was born. There are plenty of questions surrounding the competition. First and foremost is how will it be run? That is still being decided by a committee and details will emerge later, but there are a couple of possibilities. U.S.A. Rugby CEO Nigel Melville suggested the competition would be similar to the Heineken Cup, but that may only be in the sense that it runs at the same time as league play. However, if the competition were to follow a format similar to the Heineken Cup and have group play in the fall with knockout rounds in the spring, it could be something to get fans very excited about. Under that circumstance, regional based teams would get four to six games against each other in the fall, and then the best of the best would face each other in the spring. Playing regionally in the fall would reduce travel costs while still getting tough matches. The teams that then play in the knockout rounds would have enough funds to travel to away matches, especially if there was cost sharing. Additionally, this structure would improve the number of matches our top domestic players are playing. It’s no secret that one of the reasons Lou Stanfill moved to the Serie A in Italy was to get more games. Under a cup structure top teams would likely see six to eight top matches in addition to their sixteen game DI season spread over the fall and spring.
However, the cup competition may only be a knockout competition in the spring. If that is the case it still gets top teams matches against one another, but would be a step down for teams like SFGG, OPSB, and NYAC. As Super League president Sean Kelly expressed in an interview a few weeks ago, teams like these have no interest in playing DI. For example, who would OPSB play? There are no DI teams even close to them, and they might be forced to play in the British Columbia leagues. The old Super League structure saw OPSB and SFGG play twice a year with a possible third matchup in the playoffs. That was good for club rugby in the country; a single-elimination cup competition may not provide that same structure.
Even with all this uncertainty, the cup competition is going to be a great thing. Why? Because it incentivizes clubs to lure in the top players. In order for a domestic player to make it onto the national team he needs the exposure that can only come from playing with a top team that has the potential to make it to a cup final. As of now, those teams are OPSB, NYAC, and SFGG. Any other team that wants to get into that group is going to have to extend their resources. Clubs will now be competing with each other for players. It’s the first step toward professionalism.
Also, the quality of the competition is going to be excellent now that DI restrictions on Super League teams have been eliminated. Imagine a tournament of the best eight to sixteen teams in the country that included the likes of OPSB, NYAC, Belmont Shore, Glendale, Life, Chicago Lions, etc. That would be a great competition and fun to watch. Further, this competition increases the marketability of rugby. If a team knows that they may only get one home game, they may put more effort into finding a venue that has seating. They can sell tickets and make a true game-day atmosphere. That would also approve the appeal of televising the matches. The competition also gives television networks a simple rugby product to promote.
College rugby has undergone many changes in the last few years in order to better market the game and to improve the quality of competition. The latest of these efforts is the Varsity Cup, which will feature eight of the best or most marketable teams in the country. Seven of eight teams are already booked to participate: Cal, BYU, Utah, Air Force, Navy, Notre Dame, and Dartmouth. Army is rumored to be the eighth team.
The greatest thing about this competition is that it brings together some of the best teams in the country—creating seven of the most competitive games in the country—and presenting a product that is extremely marketable. College rugby needs money to show school administrators or conference officials that rugby is worth their time. Having this competition on television (assuming it is) would be a great step for growing rugby in this country.
The obvious downside to this competition is that it doesn’t leave room for schools like Life, Davenport, or Arkansas State that are extremely competitive but not marketable. Because there will now be dueling national championships, there is going to be confusion as to who is the best team in the country. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Programs are never going to be satisfied with what they have done and will drive themselves forward, improving play and infrastructure at the same time. Competition, either amongst teams or amongst competitions, is exactly what college rugby needs right now so having two great competitions can’t be a bad thing.
Overall, fans should have a positive outlook regarding these changes. The old structure wasn’t working and there needed to be an easier way for the top teams to market themselves. These new competitions do that. Additionally, this offers a fresh start in terms of television and overall marketing. So even though the actual results of the competitions have yet to play out and come with concerns, there are things to be positive about.
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