PRO Rugby will remain an all-American league in its sophomore season after Rugby Canada backed out of their sanctioning deal with the league. This was announced by the league via Twitter last Wednesday, with more details coming out the next day when Rugby Canada and the league put out statements clarifying that it was a disagreement over the exclusivity of the deal that caused the Canadian union to change their minds. After the dust settled, both parties took a credibility hit in a mixed bag of a week for North American rugby.
The decision to reject PRO Rugby is a gamble for Rugby Canada. There may be reasons to be skeptical about PRO, but it offered an immediately available professional environment for their domestic player pool. They traded this in for, presumably, a shot at a Pro12 club in the near future. I’ve been skeptical about the Pro12’s North American plans in the past and that hasn’t changed. These plans become even more questionable without the involvement and commercial upside of the USA. Another possibility is establishing their own professional league, such as the proposed Rugby North competition that has failed to produce any news since its initial press release.
For PRO Rugby, losing out on Canada is certainly a disappointment as they miss out on the chance to expand to Toronto and Vancouver, cities that have proven they can draw decent crowds for rugby matches, as well as an improvement to the depth of the league’s player pool that would have included a concentration of Canada’s best players. The bright side for American fans is that the league should be placing teams in three more U.S. cities instead of just one so long as the league can solve their venue prob-
— PRO Rugby (@ProRugbyUSA) November 2, 2016
Oh. Well, at least we know the cities to which they plan on expanding?
Let’s start with the literal substance of the tweet. It’s been known for a while now that northern cities could have issues because of the prevalence of artificial turf at stadiums in areas with colder weather. The league has had over a year now to locate facilities in these cities and get the turf tested for World Rugby approval ahead of the 2017 season, and it looks like they’ve dropped the ball on this. There are several other cities that could house teams next season – my first choice outside of the group mentioned in PRO Rugby’s tweet is Atlanta, the hub of southern rugby with a venue in Kennesaw’s Fifth Third Bank Stadium that has hosted international matches and tournaments. But the bigger question may be whether the league even gets to eight teams this year. Issues finding venues forced the league to drop a team last year when the clock ran out and it appears Rugby Canada wasted more of the league’s valuable time as PRO worked towards securing stadiums in Toronto and Vancouver before having the rug pulled out from underneath.
With that said, broadcasting their operational issues is not a great look for the league and it has become a story of its own. A lot of the criticism this past year for PRO Rugby has been in regards to the professional appearance of the league – from small things like misspellings in tweets to shifting venues mid-season to other unsubstantiated rumors that are concerning if true. The league has been cut some slack in year one as they have been given credit just for putting a product out there, but that slack will dissipate over time and we are already starting to see that.
And honestly, the league should be held to higher standards on social media because they have bet so much of their integrity on mediums like Facebook and Twitter in lieu of a more traditional approach. So when the league tweets out something that makes it look like they’re scrambling behind the scenes, it’s worsened by the fact that this is their main method of communication. It would be one thing if this was someone from the league tweeting their frustration from a personal account – it’s much more alarming to see the official league account seemingly crying out for help.
This was a strange week for North American rugby (without even mentioning the chatter about Doug Schoninger buying a South African Super Rugby team, which I will write about in the near future) and this article is admittedly more focused on the lows. But on the bright side is the success of The Rugby Weekend in Chicago, where USA Rugby sold out two international matches – one between the Eagles and the Māori All Blacks at Toyota Park and the other between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field. The latter was a welcome rebound from last year’s disappointing Soldier Field test between the U.S. and Australia where the attendance fell shy of half capacity.
On the field, things weren’t so great for the U.S. as the Māori walloped the Eagles by a score of 54-7. But that match was quickly overshadowed by a historic first victory by the Irish over the All Blacks in a phenomenal match between two of the world’s finest sides. The match attendance was proof of America’s thirst for rugby and I have to imagine that anyone watching at Soldier Field or at home would only want more after that.
This weekend was a good reminder of the bigger picture of America’s rugby potential. PRO Rugby has been granted an important role in American rugby – to establish a professional league that will not only develop our players and coaches but also tap into this growing curiosity our nation has for the game. Unlike Canada, we’ve gone all in with PRO for at least the next few years. It has come together reasonably well so far but it is still an undeniably fragile enterprise that has enough obstacles to contend with that the last thing you want to see is anything that could hurt its own cause. The quality of play, training, and all else can be fine, but the league will not fare well if it can’t recognize the importance of fostering and projecting a good perception of itself to its audience. This means a professional operation not just in terms of the personnel on the field, but also in handling communications and promotions of the league and its teams. Because as great as the sport of rugby is, you can only go so far if the plan is letting the game speak for itself.