We’ve brought DI-A commissioner Kevin Battle in for a discussion on DI-A and the current state of college rugby. This is a true Q&A session, where we ask the questions and run Battle’s responses unedited. Before the discussion gets going, let’s set the table.
College 15s is broken up into four divisions: DI-A, DI-AA, DII and NSCRO. The top three layers are governed by USA Rugby, while NSCRO is an independent competition. There’s another independent competition, the Varsity Cup, which consists of Cal, BYU, Utah, Air Force, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and Navy. All of those teams are former DI-A teams, and all but Air Force are current DI-AA teams.
In addition to commissioning DI-A, Battle serves on the College Competitions Committee, coaches DI-AA Santa Barbara City College and runs the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy. Battle coached UCSB for 12 years, stepping down from that role earlier this month.
RM: Kevin, the hottest topic of conversation in college rugby the last several months has been that Cal, BYU and other really, really good teams aren’t competing in DI-A, which is designed by USA Rugby to be the crown jewel of college rugby. We’ve heard, be it in print or on the Ruggamatrix podcast, from Cal’s Jack Clark and BYU’s David Smyth on this issue, so we know their reasons for leaving DI-A. From your perspective, why are the best teams in college rugby split across two divisions and three “championships”?
KB: It's no secret that a lot of folks have been disappointed in the way the college game has been administered at the national level. The DI-A competition was created in part to address some of those very issues and let college folks manage the college game. While progress has been made, there still is quite a ways to go. It is unfortunate that some high profile and high quality teams have sought to go their own separate route, instead of working together to help make DI-A become what it is supposed to be, the crown jewel of college rugby in the US.
RM: During the summer, there was an ongoing discussion between DI-A decision makers and the Varsity Cup teams. At some point, it was decided the VC and DI-A were going to have conflicting playoff dates and it would not be doable for VC teams to also compete in the DI-A postseason. Some VC teams expressed interest in playing in the DI-A regular season but not the postseason. This became a sticking point in the discussion, and it was eventually decided that any team competing in the DI-A regular season would have to be available for its postseason. Do I have that correct?
KB: That is correct. The DI-A member schools worked very hard to try and have the DI-A postseason and VC competition work together. The DI-A representatives offered to move playoff dates to accommodate the existence of both competitions. Those efforts were rejected by the VC teams. The DI-A competition makes significant investment in the regular and postseason competition. From video exchange, high quality referees, to travel assistance. We ask that all participating teams remain in good standing, which includes full participation in all scheduled matches, regular and postseason. The VC teams declared they were not willing to do so.
RM: Can you expand on the reasoning behind not letting teams participate in the regular season if they weren't committed to playing in the postseason?
KB: Since most college programs are funded largely through student-athlete dues, it would be unfair for us to "force" teams to play matches (and incur the expense) that have no bearing on their league standing or they deem irrelevant. We encourage teams to play as many games as possible, both cross-divisional and across leagues, including the VC teams. We leave it up to each program to determine what non-league match-ups they feel will bring value to their program and team development. I suspect you will see many DI-A vs. VC match-ups such as Ohio State vs. Notre Dame, Stanford vs. Cal and Army vs. Navy. We encourage this as it is good for rugby.
RM: I know through previous conversations that you look at DI-A as a long-term competition. You said you wouldn't have taken the job as commissioner if you didn't think it had a future. How important is it for the future of the division to get the marquee brand names and quality rugby of the Varsity Cup teams involved again? Is that something you're actively working towards?
KB: We are actively trying to get the best teams and the biggest names in college rugby to compete in the top collegiate rugby competition. We need the likes of Cal, BYU, UCLA, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Texas and other "big name schools." We also need the Arkansas States and Delawares of the world. We need a Big Ten conference that can rival the Pac 12 conference. In order to accomplish this, we need to invest. We need to strategically invest our resources to help develop teams, conferences and regions to improve their performance and grow our game. This will not happen overnight. We can no longer sit idle and hope teams develop. Hope is not a strategy.
RM: What, then, is the strategy? What help, assistance, investment can you and USA Rugby offer, or do you plan to offer, to some of the teams and leagues you've mentioned?
KB: We are in the process of revamping our marketing and sponsorship efforts and have made significant headway. Teams will share in the resources, both in product and in financial support. Production of a best practices manual (organizational and technical) has begun. Collaboration amongst peers of successful practices, both in the board room and on the pitch. Aligning teams in traditional conferences where available will help to bring more visibility and legitimacy to our sport. Keeping competition more local and regionalized, in an effort to develop more fan support and minimize costs. Sending specialized coaches to strategic regions to assist with coaching and player development. These are many of the improvements that are being developed and are sorely needed.
RM: The membership of DI-A, many would argue, has been diluted, in terms of quality on the field - not only because of the loss of teams like those competing in the Varsity Cup, but because of the inclusion of teams that are coming straight from DII, like Michigan, or a weaker DI-AA competition, like Sam Houston State. It appeared DI-A was fighting for survival this summer and was adding numbers out of desperation. What do you see the process being going forward? How do you balance keeping DI-A large enough to work without having an open admissions policy?
KB: There exists no "open admissions policy" in DI-A rugby. Each team and conference offers value to our competition. The decision to admit some teams who might not be as competitive 'today' to the D1A competition is part of a broader strategy. We needed to regionalize competition to minimize costs and develop or take advantage of local rivalries. We need to include conferences and schools who bring with them brand recognition and relevance such as the Big 10. We will in-turn work to help these programs develop and grow to reach their full potential. This is no different than finding that stud athlete walking around campus. He might not be a great rugby player today, but with coaching, guidance and support, how good can he be in three years? We must take on this challenge.
RM: Is there a cap on teams? Can DI-A continue to frow? Is it even the plan for DI-A to grow? The larger DI-A gets, the more teams might wish to be in a playoff scenario, but we're hindered by timing. How do we avoid DI-A becoming DI again with lots of two-game weekends and everyone in a playoff, without also excluding teams?
KB: There currently exists no cap on the DI-A competition. We have identified teams, conferences, and regions that we would like to expand to. We also do not want to limit opportunities for those teams to earn their way in through promotion by maintaining a standard of excellence both on and off the pitch. We have plans to expand to a round of 16, and have looked at the possibility of additional play-in rounds if necessary. The two-game weekend creates a greater health risk for our student-athletes and diminishes the quality of our product. Returning to that scenario is not an option.
RM: OK, almost time to let you off the hook. But before we do, what can we look for this season in DI-A? Will there be any changes to the postseason, broadcast or webcast plans, or anything we might notice on the pitch? Are we still looking at bundling DI-A, DI-AA and DII college championships at the same venue and weekend and getting it on TV? Does the venue get changed with BYU out of the picture?
KB: We are currently hard at work now planning for the 2013 postseason. We are working on both broadcast and webcast plans. TV is a must. DI-A will not be bundled together with other college championships. Certainly the absence of both BYU and Utah make Rio Tinto a less attractive venue for us this season. We hope to change that in the near future. Plans will be released to RM as soon as the ink dries!