What is it that American rugby needs at every level, yet struggles perhaps the most with? You could argue it’s outsiders. At seemingly every level, with every team or club, there’s some kind of effort thrust toward gaining the approval, understanding or partnership of a non-rugger, a non-parishioner.
College teams often need the approving nod from a club sports director or student government official. For high school teams, it’s athletic directors, school officials and parents. Club teams are always soliciting sponsorships, and often from companies run by non-parishioners. At the highest level, USA 7s is selling the sport of rugby to television networks, and its coaching staff is targeting high-level football players.
Sure, the rugby community does a good job of taking care of its own. Clubs are largely funded by alumni donations, and several ruggers have done quite well for themselves and provided something to the game. This very publication is as good an example of that as any. But if American rugby is truly going to grow to the heights we all hope, it needs the attention of more outsiders like Sean Whalen.
Whalen is the financial backer/CEO/general manager/owner of the Utah Warriors, the team recently voted into the Super League. Whalen has never played rugby, never coached rugby, and has no familial tie to the sport. He is not from a foreign, rugby-playing country. He’s a successful real estate entrepreneur from right here in the United States, and he sees rugby as a viable, profitable venture.
“This isn’t a pro bono deal, this isn’t a charity. It’s not my brother’s team that I’m just supporting and trying to find plastic trophies at the end of the year for,” Whalen told RUGBYMag.com. “I know that we can make money with this. We’ve run the numbers, and we know we can make this thing profitable from day one.”
When news broke of the Utah Warriors being accepted into the Super League, it was unclear what the team was all about. The fact that Jon Law, president of the Utah Rugby Union, was the head coach led some to believe the Warriors would be a Utah select side. We knew there was a financial backer, but we weren’t sure who it was or to what extent he/she would be involved. Now, it’s clear. Whalen has joined forces with Law and a handful of other people from the Utah rugby community in an effort to create a professional rugby team.
“I’ve owned my own business, I’ve been an entrepreneur for a number of years, and I realize that a professional sporting organization is a fantastic opportunity, and if you can get in and help mold the future, that’s an even better opportunity, and that’s what I see with the Super League,” said Whalen.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘if you build it, they will come,’ and the reality is nobody’s actually stepped up and put a good product in front of the marketplace. If the product is good enough anybody will buy. There’s always money, there’s always investors, there’s always somebody willing to come and see what you’re doing.”
Whalen is a self-admitted mixed martial arts (MMA) fan, and it’s the meteoric rise of that sport, and really the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), from fringe sport to a premier, money-making venture that has inspired Whalen to invest in rugby, in which he sees a lot of parallels to MMA.
“If you look at what the UFC has done over the last couple years, it’s the perfect sport. It’s got a mixture of covering multiple different bases from jiu jitsu to Muay Thai to karate to boxing to flat out street fighting,” said Whalen.
“When you look at soccer in America, soccer hasn’t really even caught on in America. It still is a boring sport to everybody here, but when you add the football component to it, where now guys could get nailed instead getting red carded, that adds a lot of excitement to it. The same thing with MMA; I’m not going to watch a karate match, I’m not going to go watch a guy roll around and wrestle for three or four hours, but if I can watch a guy wrestle and then punch a guy in the face, that’s pretty cool.”
What will ultimately make or break the Warriors’ ability to be a profitable entity is their ability to put butts in Rio Tinto Stadium seats. It’s how all viable professional sports leagues began and how they work today. Television contracts now make up a large piece of the pie for the NFL, MLB and NBA, but they were non-existent when those leagues were formed. While TV is part of Whalen’s long term plan, it’s not the immediate concern. Attendance is, and Utah has a history of attending its high-profile rugby events.
“We tend to draw very large crowds. We’ve had 5,000 plus for each of the national championships the past few years that have been played here, and that’s just for the U19/High School championships, so we’ve got a base that’s excited about rugby,” said Law, who played on four national championship Highland teams from ’89-’92. “We’ve done some of the marketing in the area. We know that the community will support the team. We know we can put fans in the stands to watch the games.”
Being an outsider, Whalen believes he possesses the business sense and know-how that rugby administrators and higher-ups often lack. “Tell them to keep their eyes on the Utah Warriors in 2011 and they will know how to monetize a rugby team,” he said.
“If every team was playing on an even field, in the sense that they all had $50,000 a year to market or a $100,000 a year to market, most of these guys have no backing in that. They’re firefighters, they’re policemen. They know nothing about marketing, they know nothing about business.
“They’re phenomenal rugby players, they’re kick ass rugby players, but the reality is somebody’s got to stand at the helm of the ship and say ‘Guys, I’m going to market, I’m going to get people here. We want you to focus on playing rugby.’ My thought process is the Utah Warriors are going to be able to plant that flag in the ground…and really what I’d like to do as an individual is offer to the league that vision and that opportunity, and I really do think they’ll catch on to it.”
Whalen, while confident in his ability to build a company, is not unaware of the pride, effort and hard work possessed and put in by the administrators and shepherds of the game he’s talking about.
“Without a doubt, you have to be respectful of the guys that are playing the game,” Whalen said. “(Professional rugby) is going to happen one way or another, so if it’s going to happen, why not have those guys there molding it and shaping it so that it’s what they want to see or what they want to do, because one way or another there are going to be guys like me popping up all over the country. There already are.”
The international professionalization of rugby after the 1995 World Cup was wrought with bickering and hurt feelings. So much so that it inspired two Americans to make a movie about it. And though our American clubs have significantly less history with the game and its amateur past than our European and southern hemisphere counterparts, they possess a lot of pride. That club pride is part of the reason the vote to accept Utah’s bid to be a part of the Super League was not unanimous. In fact, a revote was called for by a triad of clubs.
“You have kind of a fine line of the old school and the new school, and I think a lot of people are always scared of change or scared of the new school,” Whalen said.
Utah’s battle with the ’old school’ is not done, and it’ll likely serve as motivational fodder for some of the Warriors’ opponents this spring. However, Whalen is determined to turn the Warriors and the Super League into commercial entities. For the time being, the Super League seems open to letting him try.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance, and I think everybody sort of bashes the Super League over the years about, ‘Well you’re a closed shop, you don’t do this, you don’t do that,’” said RSL president Sean Kelly, “and I think and I hope that these guys have a good vision, and they’re going to use it and they’re going to see how it turns out.”