USA 7s LLC released the list of 15 teams it has invited to its third annual Collegiate Rugby Championship invitational at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.
The tournament will be held June 2-3. For tickets and information, go to www.usasevenscrc.com
A 16th team will be decided at the CRC Qualifier during the Las Vegas Invitational.
The list of 15 teams is: Temple, Penn State, Delaware, Maryland, Cal, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, North Carolina State, Florida, Dartmouth, Army, Navy, and Notre Dame.
That list has of course engendered a lot of debate among rugby fans, with many feeling other college 7s teams should have been invited.
RUGBYMag.com sat down with USA 7s LLC executive VP Dan Lyle and CRC Tournament Director Donal Walsh to talk about how the tournament is put together and what they were thinking. The results might surprise some, as both Walsh and Lyle said they would like to see the team list decided by qualification in future years – just not right now.
RUGBYMag: The big question is the first one: why did you choose these 15 teams?
Donal Walsh: We have several criteria we use to select teams:
1. Does the school have as rugby program?
2. Is it a good, reputable rugby program in good standing with USA Rugby and its league?
3. Does the school have a good school brand, a national collegiate sporting brand? That criterion was put to us by NBC Sports.
4. Is the school in close proximity to the venue that will help with ticket sales?
5. If not close to the venue, can the school mobilize its supporters to get fans to the event?
RUGBYMag: Who chooses these teams?
Dan Lyle: It’s a joint decision, with some members of USA 7s along with NBC staff. They’re not easy decisions, by any means.
RUGBYMag: Why name the list now, in November, when the tournament isn’t until June?
Lyle: We wanted to give us and the teams the ability to build the event and we needed a long runway to do that. You have to define the event to the consumer; we have the much larger audience provided thanks to NBC, and then there’s also us, rugby people, who aren’t really used to paying money to see events.
There’s an educational component to both types of audiences, and there’s also a marketing component within and outside the Philadelphia market. These universities have sophisticated alumni groups, but we’re asking them to add rugby to their communications and their efforts, and that often-times is something they haven’t done before. So they need to be given time to get their support behind the event.
Then you also have to give teams the ability to rally their own technical and tactical abilities. Coaches today build for an entire season and they have to really get after it for their entire season.
RUGBYMag: The process has come under criticism, and while you could dismiss some of it as just sour grapes by fans of a particular team that didn’t get in, there is also some more dispassionate criticism that the tournament should be more merit-based; that the CRC should have qualification tournaments and make choices based more on quality of teams on the field, rather than well-known college sports names.
Walsh: I think it’s debatable who are the 16 best university teams are at any given time. The USA Rugby event that will be played in Texas will be interesting to watch, but will those teams be the same caliber in June? And remember, that tournament also has its invitational component.
In my mind, rugby as a sport has to start at a platform that is educational and welcoming to the general sports fan, and brings the general American public into the sport that we all know and love.
To do this we are taking direction from the people who are the best in the world at sports broadcasting, in NBC Sports. In the future, we want to get to a place where it’s a merit-based, championship-style event. But for us to get to where the sport is strong enough where any brand in the country could make it to the final and people find it intriguing, we have a little ways to go.
So, by showcasing the major collegiate brands of the world, you’re really showing the American public how mainstream and developed the sport is in the States. If we bring forward marquee brands at this stage of the competition, it validates everything we’re doing to promote the sport.
Lyle: We want to create an event that can be sustainable. You have to make hard choices about what the outside perception of the sport is. Consumers are used to collegiate sports sponsored by the big brands, and if we make this a successful event, which attracts a wide range of fans, we create a lifeline for the entire collegiate rugby landscape.
You have to get brands and get bums in seats. Do we want a second, third, fourth qualifier from regional tournaments or conferences? Absolutely.
RUGBYMag: So if you have two teams that are relatively equal, except one seems to be superior on the field, and the other is a very well-known rugby brand, which do you pick?
Lyle: Most likely we go with the brand. It’s what helps us build a sustainable event.
We know there are some teams out there that are missing. And we look at the geographical spread, as well. You might argue that having Arizona there doesn’t really cover Southern California the way UCLA or San Diego State would.
But we go by what the experts say at NBC, what are the brands they set their schedules by. They look at what the general consumer watches. Would somebody in Iowa watch Texas? Would somebody in Washington State watch Cal? Once you get those fans watching, you try to open it up from there.
But let me say, the blogs and comments about this are wonderful. It’s like talking about your fantasy league or the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s great to see that passion.
Walsh: The people in the broadcast world are trying to showcase rugby in the best way possible. They’ve seen it, they believe in it, and they want to develop it. And, they feel very strongly this is the best way forward.
Merit-based is on the horizon but until we’re truly established we have to take those recommendations. We have a couple of teams we brought in on merit-based. Wisconsin won the Big-10 and North Carolina State won the ACC. Both got automatic bids because those conferences had agreements with USA 7s. Those two teams were invited at the expense of Ohio State and University of North Carolina, who were at the 2011 CRC; two very strong teams and brands who delivered great quality on and off the field.
RUGBYMag: Is the list too East Coast?
Walsh: We’re in the hotbed of collegiate rugby in the Northeast corridor and we have to be sympathetic to that.
RUGBYMag: We could go down the list of teams that have what appear to be very strong 7s teams – St. Mary’s, Colorado, Texas A&M – but I want to ask you about three teams that didn’t make the list of 15: Kutztown University, Utah, and Central Washington. All are very strong, Utah won the CRC in 2010, CWU qualified and finished 4th in 2011, and Kutztown is relatively local to Philadelphia and finished second in the qualifier in Las Vegas.
What it hard to leave Utah out? Did Central Washington, a non-brand team, detract from the 2011 CRC? And why no KU?
Walsh: It was extremely tough to leave Utah out. They have always been an exciting team and a great brand. But one of our criteria is how the schools endeavor to get fans out to the stadium. Over the course of two years we’ve worked with Utah in terms of getting alumni support and university support. It wasn’t as forthcoming as they would have liked to see. I think they understood, and not getting an automatic invite was acceptable to them. They are actually going to play in the qualifier in Las Vegas and try to play their way through, which is great.
Lyle: You can’t argue that Central Washington being there hurt the tournament. They had some good stories, good kids, enthusiastic, brought an outside look, kind of a Cinderella story. It’s something we want to increase as we go forward. They performed well and did what we asked them to do: show up, look good, behave well, train beforehand … they did all that.
Walsh: If you compare Kutztown to Penn State or Delaware or Temple, you see those are all brands that are more well-known. There’s definitely a sense of frustration on our side because they are a good team and we hope they do well.
RUGBYMag: What about teams that are in the tournament but won’t measure up competitively?
Walsh: In rugby-playing terms, I don’t believe there is a program out there that isn’t good enough to compete. It’s all about application.
But we’ve heard some comments about Temple. But Temple showed up with a great attitude, did everything we asked them to do and more. Their fans all showed up in sweatshirts with the Temple owl on them, and sold out the equivalent of three sections of the stadium. Support like that always gets you noticed, and when NBC came back to us they said, the first team on the list for 2012 is Temple.
RUGBYMag: Is the message of Utah not getting in a message that no team has a guaranteed spot? (Although it’s kind of hard to imagine Army or Navy not being there.)
Walsh: There’s no guarantee of teams coming back. Philadelphia is the traditional home of the Army-Navy football game, so that’s always going to be an intriguing feature of the event. However, both Army and Navy know that they need to support the event to the fullest.
Now you’ll see teams like Florida, which was invited in Year One but not last year. They were able to regroup, get their strategy and plan together. They made us aware of that, and they’ve been aggressive.
Other programs have to do the same. They have to start thinking, how can we do a good job for the event, and make our school and the sport look good in this environment?
RUGBYMag: USA Rugby has created its own National Championship to be held December 16-17 in College Station, Texas. What’s the relationship between USA Rugby and USA 7s LLC?
Lyle: We’re been openly discussing how to work together. We’re about adding to and improving the university brands and adding to and improving the collegiate 7s and collegiate rugby model.
We know that it’s a difficult proposition to put on a new competition. Remember how hard it continues to be for the World Series. They don’t always get it right – this person didn’t like something; someone else didn’t think they stayed in the right hotel. We recognize that and we’re trying to create a playing field, where you have enough time to prepare and play your best.
That’s where USA Rugby’s got to get to. We’re eager to see the quality and how the teams respond to their event. And we’re also eager to see how we can help USA Rugby going forward.
RUGBYMag: You talk about teams helping make the CRC work. Why should anyone worry about making your event a success?
Walsh: What we need is every rugby club at the college level in the USA thinking: “How do we make more people more aware of our game? How do we sell more tickets to our games? How do we sell more T-shirts? How do we make a pitch to our AD that we should be more incorporated into the infrastructure on campus?”
To do that, we need ways of putting rugby into the mainstream. This event, because of the venue it’s played in and because it’s on NBC, is a big part of that. Think about how much collegiate 7s there was before the CRC – not much.
So getting this event on TV, and having people see it, and seeing fans in the stadium and excited about it, on a subconscious level increases the excitement for the new fan. And then they go out and become involved in the game on a local level.
RUGBYMag: What are the goals for the business side of the event?
Lyle: More. We want to grow. We’re in this for the long term, and so is NBC. They’ve shown with their commitment to the Olympics and the World Cup that they’re in it for the long term.
We’d all like to see more. Whether it’s a few tenths more in the ratings, or an extra 2,000 to 5,000 fans on top of the 17,500 we had last year. All that needs to show growth.
And that follows on to how you select teams.
We are growing our sport with brands that are familiar in the American sports landscape. As we grow it we will be able to move toward a more merit-based system.
We are eager to create a better selection criteria, but we need to build something that makes sense for everybody.
But for next June, the bowl at the stadium seats about 15,500. Can we sell out the bowl? We had about 11,000 on Day One and just over 6,000 on Day Two. Can we get the numbers the same?
RUGBYMag: So to summarize, you both say that USA 7s will, ideally, move the team selection criteria to a more merit-based system as the event becomes more popular in terms of attendance and in terms of TV viewers. And you’re slowly going that way now. But at the same time, NBC has made it clear that the event needs those marketable college names.
Lyle: Yes. We are looking at a way to grow the game, and we’ve decided to grow the game in part through this event, which needs the collegiate brands to be successful.
We’re an open organization and interested in hearing peoples’ opinions and acting on them. But this isn’t a short-term thing where we put something on the field based on the opinions of a thousand people.
We have to go with what the professionals within the industry have to say, working with having legitimacy in our own community, and use that plan to go on an upward trajectory. We know there’s room for improvement, but we’re also thankful and excited we’ve had this amount of dialogue about it.