Cliff Notes is an opinion column written by Pat Clifton. Follow Pat on Twitter @Pat_Clifton.
USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships are under a month away, and it appears they’ll be accompanied by the same lack of fanfare, attendance, intrigue and media attention as they were in 2012 and 2011.
The venue is improved. Fans will at least be able to enjoy covered stadium seating for one field, and the entire tournament will be played on natural grass. That’s a step up from Texas A&M’s Penberthy Rec Sports Complex, the home of the first two National Championships. In 2011, the games were played on field turf and in both years there were just a few bleachers lined up on the side of an intramural field.
No live attendance. Seating the first two years, though pretty bare bones, wasn’t too much of an issue, considering the number of participant players far outweighed that of actual fans in attendance. And it’s probably fair to assume the number of fans not related to a player could’ve fit on a school bus.
Media attention non-existent. While much was made of the ESPN brand webcasting the games last year, the coverage appears as though it’s going to be scaled back even from what it was supposed to be just a handful of months ago. In May USA Rugby issued a press release that said the entire competition would be streamed online, while all men’s and women’s semifinal and final matches will be live streamed on ESPN3 and telecast on ESPNU. USA Rugby’s current event guide has no mention of a telecast on ESPNU, so everything, save a few games webcast on ESPN3, will be on USA Rugby's YouTube channel.
Teams don’t care to compete. The point of a National Championship isn’t necessarily to get on television or in front of a large number of fans. It’s to crown the best team in the land. For the third year in a row, USA Rugby’s National Championships will be missing some important pieces to that puzzle. So far, BYU and Cal have declared they’re not going to participate. More teams will likely turn down at-large bids or not even attempt to make it to Nationals, as had been the case in 2011 and 2012.
Why are BYU and Cal not going? Yes, BYU has a strict policy of not playing on Sundays. But this is the first year Sunday is in play, and BYU didn’t show any interest in Nationals in 2011 or 2012.
I’m not going to put words in coach's mouths, but it’s easy to argue the value’s not there to spend 10s of thousands of dollars to play in front of friends and family on a remote webcast. There are many other teams who have abstained in years past. This is not just about two teams.
How to fix it
Put it in Las Vegas. I’ve spun this idea before, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll make my argument again. There are some potential problems with Vegas, such as timing and fields, but they're small hurdles.
Rugby’s invasion of Las Vegas, many coaches I’ve talked to argue, comes at a bad time. It’s either too close to the spring 15s season, it’s too hard to train for 7s that time of year in cold weather areas, or it falls in too weird a position in the academic calendar. I call that bluff.
When there was something to play for at the LVI – a bid to the Collegiate Rugby Championship – teams who play high-stakes 15s in the spring (Central Washington, Life, Kutztown, Utah) all made time to play 7s in the winter. Teams from cold weather areas (Kutztown, Davenport, Miami [OH], Bowling Green and Delaware) all found a way to play 7s in the winter and play well. And the fact that over 32 teams participated in 2012, the last year the college bracket at the LVI was a qualifier, suggests the tournament doesn’t fall in too weird a place on the academic calendar. Not to mention all the other teams that have played 15s at the LVI, like Cal, Penn State and Arizona.
The time of year is fine, and in fact, it’s a great compromise. Whether the LVI remains in late January or moves back to early February, it falls between both crucial 15s seasons. All the fall-playing 15s teams who peak in early December would have plenty of time to switch onto 7s. All of the fall playing 7s teams are already in good position. And it’s clear of finals.
There have been complaints about the Star Nursery fields of the LVI before. Frankly, some of the complaints are valid, and some of them are just bellyaching. While not perfect, the Star Nursery's natural grass fields are sufficient and improving every year. And the Heritage Park fields are better. The pool stages could be played at either and be fine.
In 2011, the semifinals and finals of the CRC Qualifier bracket were played inside Sam Boyd Stadium the day before the IRB tournament took place. The games gave NBC’s broadcast people a dry run. Every year at the LVI, a number of championship games have been played inside the stadium during breaks in the IRB action. I recall all this to say that in my hypothetical, at least the National Championship game, and maybe more now that the IRB tournament spans three days, would be played inside the stadium in front of 10s of thousands of fans.
Live attendance. While we’re on the subject, why not make USA Rugby’s College 7s National Championships the darling of the LVI, much like the CRC Qualifier was? Teams and players would flock to those fields, in bigger droves than they did for the CRC Qualifier in years past and larger numbers than at the first two USA Rugby College 7s National Championships. The players would get the crowds and attention deserving of a National Championship, and the finals would be played in front of a massive crowd.
Media exposure. Don’t forget that NBC cameras are on hand. Maybe they take notice of the tournament if it’s a National Championship and do a small package for the IRB broadcast or the CRC broadcast, maybe they want to carry it on an affiliate network or online, or maybe they just use it as b-roll. Maybe they don’t do any of that, and the event is reduced to a webcast – then the National Championship will get just as little media exposure as it always does, but with a great boost in live attendance.
Teams will come. They’re already coming to Las Vegas. BYU regularly attends, and since the LVI ends on Saturday, the Cougars could participate. Cal isn't a stranger to the LVI, nor are many other would-be title contenders. The Vegas experience draws these teams on its own, without the allure of playing for a National Championship. Put that icing on the cake, and teams will be in line to gobble it up.
Why it won’t happen
USA Rugby won’t work with United World Sports. Instead of partnering with UWS to put the Women’s IRB 7s event in Las Vegas, USA Rugby is trying to build its own event in Atlanta, where a tournament worthy of great attention will be played in front of thousands of empty seats. If USA Rugby’s so prideful it’s willing to fail the IRB, which provides millions in grant money, why would it work with a company it views as a competitor to do right by its dues-paying members?
This could be a win-win for USA Rugby and UWS. UWS could enhance the biggest tournament in the country and heighten the already unbeatable Vegas experience, and USA Rugby could save on a costly championship and provide a great experience for its members with few headaches. UWS already deals with hotel discounts, promotion, field setup, etc. But greed and pride will win the day, and the achievements and talents of our college 7s players and teams will continue to fly under the radar.
RUGBYMag.com shares its owner with United World Sports, but the two organizations operate separately.