The past two weeks have been big for the game of rugby in the USA with the formal announcements that professional rugby will be established here in the States. PRO Rugby which is the league/organization implementing professional rugby in the USA has the backing and support of both USA Rugby and World Rugby (formerly the IRB). This along with a plan and financial support has PRO rugby moving forward to start play in the spring of 2016.
What do we know so far? At the time of this story (and our discussion with PRO Rugby) there will be six teams to start. Two have been announced so far and both are in Northern California (Sacramento the first city/team to be announced earlier in the week and now San Francisco)! There will be four more teams announced over the next few weeks to month. There are plans in the next year to bring on some additional teams (including from Canada) and build from there.
There has been some great coverage on this including updates from This Is American Rugby, and the fellas over at American Rugby Pod so check those out if you aren’t up to speed yet. What makes this a bit different is that PRO Rugby is overseeing all the teams and at this point. They aren’t promoting existing clubs/teams into the league but building specific professional teams.
Professional rugby will really bolster the level of rugby in the USA and makes it viable for a number of players. You have top level players (even international level players) who are playing domestically with clubs which is great but they may not have the options/support to improve without professional support (compete on a consistent bases against a higher level of competition, funding to train and just play rugby vs balancing it all the same way guys like Mike Petri have had to do).
What PRO Rugby won’t lack is talent. This new professional level in the USA will allow top level college rugby players (and there are a lot of them) to transition to the pro level and work toward moving to higher level of competition (domestically, overseas, or for national sides). You have high school talent who may be able to make the transition and what about other top level club guys who could make these teams? It may also be a draw, as the boys from American Rugby Pod noted for players who may be playing club level overseas against great completion but they aren’t being paid, can now return home, play professionally and be able to grow. PRO Rugby does intend to use a draft which will be a good marketing option, but it also allows them to actually select talented/experienced rugby players from clubs around the country or colleges. There is a lot that still needs to be sorted out and the folks at PRO Rugby are working on all that at this time.
We did want to learn more about how the addition of, now two professional (PRO Rugby) sides in NorCal would play a factor in the rugby community here in California. We were able to connect with Steve Lewis the Director of Rugby Operations for PRO Rugby. Below is our discussion.
The Rugby Republic (RR): Steve, in the press conference in Sacramento earlier we learned that the Pacific Nations Cup (PNC) matches in Sacramento’s Bonney Field (Samoa vs Fiju and USA vs Japan) this past summer was a factor. How much was the fact that there are also several senior men’s and women’s clubs in Sacramento, as well as fairly robust high school/youth rugby in the Sacramento play any factor?
Steve Lewis of PRO Rugby (PRO Rugby): There are a variety of criteria we looked at in determining which markets to enter, and while Sacramento has a national reputation for youth and school rugby, the critical factor was the venue (Bonney Field).
(RR): The PNC in Sacramento this summer did draw fans from as far away as the bay area, as far south as Fresno and as far east as Reno. Does PRO Rugby have plans to try and reach outside of Sacramento to build up the fan base? We heard there is a goal to get 3,000-7,000 per game. Is that just drawing form Sac, or northern California (regional)?
PRO Rugby: We believe the appetite for rugby is regional. We want to get regional support for the clubs.
RR: The Bay Area was rumored to be the next site was, but now we know it is San Francisco. Are having large stadiums a key factor, or just a location that is a hot bed of rugby action?
PRO Rugby: San Francisco is now confirmed as our second venue and we believe the NorCal rivalry (San Francisco vs Sacramento) will be exciting for rugby followers, especially for those in the region. Large stadiums are not a factor as we want atmosphere, we are realistic about initial attendances. Boxer Stadium is confirmed in San Francisco’s Balboa Park as the venue. Its getting venues that can support an atmosphere.
RR: Is there any specific plans to engage and or work with the local rugby clubs (including college) in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas to pull players, help promote rugby in general, or any type of affiliates to help develop their players/coaches?
PRO Rugby: Indeed. We will be activating the local markets in the near future and engagement with the local community (and rugby community) is paramount.
RR: Has there been any discussion with the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP) and what impact PRO Rugby may have? Will PRO Rugby be pulling players from there? Will having professional rugby in NorCal still have a need for PRP ? In NorCal, specifically you have two PRP teams (Olympic Club and Golden Gate) and you have two PRO (professional teams San Francisco’s and Sacramento who are just a few hours apart), as well as 8 DI sides, great college and high school sides that feed into them, etc.
PRO Rugby: I have had numerous discussions with PRP members on an unofficial basis on a variety of matters. PRO Rugby firmly believes there is a need for a robust club competition and that strong clubs should remain so. We see ourselves as an additional layer of competition between ARP/PRP and the national team. Some PRP players will no doubt want to test themselves at a higher level, (and be paid for it) but we are working on some scheduling tweaks that will allow us to grow in conjunction with the existing clubs. We want to be complementary not competitive.
RR: Last year the Northern California Rugby Football Union (NCRFU) reinstated their select sides the Pelicans drawing some great talent from all the senior level clubs. Has there been any communication with NCRFU to look at some of their select side players (Pelicans) to joint PRO Rugby? Will select sides from Northern and Southern California be a source to find and/or develop players?
PRO Rugby: No we haven’t yet, but it’s a possibility.
RR: Will Southern California be a place for a PRO Rugby club in the next few years? Los Angles has a number of clubs, venues as well as San Diego which also has a number of clubs and even the US Olympic Training Center?
PRO Rugby: Southern California is obviously a prime rugby market and will feature in our plans going forward. Venues are a big factor as noted and we are also looking at logistics.
RR: The question the ruggers all want to know. Will PRO Rugby be looking for actual rugby players (with experience and skills) or are they “open” to any type and experience level of players they get? Some of those “other” attempts at professional rugby in the past have looked to make athletes into rugby players vs. getting high level/skilled experienced rugby players (from colleges, clubs, select sides, etc.).
PRO Rugby: We will initially be looking at existing rugby players (players who have the skills to play professionally), but obviously are open to any athletes with potential who want to commit to the sport.
We are grateful to Steve Lewis and PRO Rugby for their efforts and taking the time to chat with us. Again there are some great stories on-line and takes on PRO Rugby. We are committed to rugby here in the Golden State and thus focused on how this can impact, benefit and grow the game here in the State. Having two (the first two) organized professional rugby sides be right here in our back yard is great. The proximity for the San Francisco and Sacramento sides should make getting to professional games for all levels of rugby easier.
You can get more information on PRO Rugby from their site www.prorugby.org. As Steve noted, PRO Rugby will be looking to engage with the fans/community, including eventually picking colors, names/mascots, etc so stay in the loop.