Educating America

With more tournaments and players than ever before, rugby sevens is trying to make its mark in the USA. Jon Prusmack, chief executive of USA Rugby Sevens, believes the key to long-term success is ensuring that the game becomes part of the country’s college sport system.


7    ” by the International Rugby Board (IRB), the world governing and lawmaking body for the sport of rugby union, as a key development market for the game. In terms of exposure and participation the sport is growing in the territory, but as yet the national governing body led by former England international Nigel Melville has failed in its attempts to crack the country’s enormous potential for growth. That does not look likely to change any time soon. “It’s not going to catch on for another 20 years at least,” predicts Jon Prusmack, chief  ) ”   4&7&)     7 !'&)   )Ÿ-?= man rugby is too complex for Americans and it can be a very boring game.” It is here where the owner of America’s premier rugby event believes that rugby sevens holds the edge over its longer-established cousin. Asked why he thinks sevens is a more appealing proposition to Americans, his answer mimics a growing feeling amongst emerging rugby markets that the shorter form of the game is both more engaging for viewers and more rewarding for competitors. “First of all,  %  Ÿ&    fast. Thirdly, it’s exciting. And, lastly, it’s only -;  %      becomes a very entertaining prospect.” 7 -?=       remains the more popular of the two disciplines around the world, Prusmack is “    Ÿ   going to change”. A keen rugby player himself until a neck injury ended his playing career, Prusmack’s “      )   With more tournaments and players than ever before, rugby sevens is trying to make its mark in the USA. Jon Prusmack, chief executive of USA Rugby Sevens, believes the key to long-term success is ensuring that the game becomes part of the country’s college sport system. EDUCATING AMERICA By Tom Love Many of the USA’s international rugby sevens team are former NFL players. Jon Prusmack, chief executive of USA Sevens, believes the sport’s future is in the colleges INTERVIEW | RUGBY 102 | part stems from the promising growth of the 4&7&)         !'/ &) &   '  4&7  *,,?—   which the enigmatic American businessman   Ÿ      —  Prusmack’s ownership the two-day event     ”     )?,,,,  )   *,-,    +  The tournament’s success has seen it move )  –=  year having been held in Las Vegas for this “Ÿ!     have a tournament structure for these sevenman teams,” Prusmack says matter-of-factly, before turning back to the short format of the games. “If you don’t want to see Japan &        or have a beer and wait until England play + 4 -?=    gets boring at least you know that within the ”)         4&7&)   has been mirrored by the sport the world over. It is becoming tiresome to stress the importance of its acceptance into the Olympic programme but, for a sport that has almost entirely consisted of amateur athletes since its inception, the ability to now compete on an 6  *,-;         A&'(       ”     —!'/ &)  &  “     !6(  )   Ÿ! ”    Prusmack adds. “Now that it’s an Olympic sport I think there are a lot of people out there saying, ‘I want to be an Olympian.’ I mean, who wouldn’t want a gold medal? What an achievement it would be. Now that the Olympics has adopted seven-man rugby I think that’s going to have the dominant support from the colleges.” Prusmack’s last point is a crucial one in       )  4& While the growth of the Las Vegas tournament has been impressive, he maintains that, unlike  4&7    )  too many foreigners who do not understand American culture in senior positions, the       ) ” within the realms of college sport. Ÿ(     competitive network we have,” he says resolutely, drumming each word with his  Ÿ/ 4&(    / 0@  (  Harlequins, nobody cares. What people care about is when the army plays the navy, when Notre Dame plays Texas. When the colleges  ) ”   brand value.” He goes on to describe what he sees as a “fundamental difference in the operating    4&   = playing countries. “We are not a club-based sports country, they don’t really exist,” he  Ÿ4&7      8  & 7     it just doesn’t work in America.” Prusmack is far more animated when recounting the story of the second tournament  4&7&)     4&7 &)  ( (  ! ) ™((!š   >    year and attracting major names familiar to the world of sports sponsorship in Bud Light and & *,-,((!   ) *,œ??  (   ( stadium in Ohio. (    -;   from many more applicants, the colleges INTERVIEW | RUGBY USA Rugby is turning also-rans into stars: Bennie Brazell came fourth in the 400m hurdles at the 2004 Olympic Games; Leonard Peters failed to impress in the NFL SportsPro Magazine | 103 were chosen not just on merit but also in an attempt to create what Prusmack describes Ÿ  ) —6 &  % &ž() 4ž0  against Pittsburgh, that sort of thing.” The tournament was run in a similar fashion  ˜  )  !'&)  / & %      ) 0'(&     ((!  ˜    of live coverage across two of the network’s  Ÿ  0'( would provide all the TV time, which was &  &      they would also provide all the production and    ”   + 4&7  with guaranteeing that invited teams “were professional in terms of their performance.” Having devoted resources to the tournament 0'(   )   going to make for good television. Fortunately,  )         ˜ ””   (    =4    Ÿ! ”   :  %   Ÿ+ ”  saw the excitement of seven-man rugby and 0'(˜        As it turned out, guaranteeing that the level of professionalism on display would match up to the American viewers’ high-standard   )   4&7&)  worries. Indeed, one of the hardest tasks that Prusmack and his team faced was actually       — than done given that many of the teams    ) )   ”  endorsed by their college athletic programmes and, as such, simply didn’t have the right to use the university logo. “They can say Notre      ”     Prusmack gives as an example. To make certain of all teams’ credibility, competition organiser Jon Hinkin was sent around to each college to make sure that, “those logos were going to feature on the jerseys, because we wanted that to be on television – so there was some real work that we had to go through.” All that hard work paid off. “What it did was, in the eyes of the athletic directors and the schools’ administration, elevate the game’s status and make people take note that rugby    ”  rather than clubs within the college.” 4&7&)   one that is hard to fathom for many outside of America. “Rugby has always had a bit of a renegade image and the university only wants to use it where they think it’s going to be good,” says Prusmack, before going on to describe a grievance that all academic institutions have to put up with: “I mean guys would go out, play rugby, drink beer, get drunk, piss on the street and bite chickens’  &      to have the logo. “I think the rugby culture has mellowed a lot though. Too many guys who started    ;, 2,   athletes, they were just out there for partying and that’s all they thought about. Rugby is a very physical game and consequently you can’t just go out drinking all the time.” The above may have been representative of players’ behaviour in a bygone era, then today’s player is an entirely different animal  !   ”     modern-day rugby players are up there with the very best in professional sports. And while the most important requisites for the -?==   =  strength, endurance and ball handling ability, 4&7&)         suggests that, in sevens “speed and athleticism           different skill sets required and one of the main reasons that rugby sevens’ growth is being forecast to grow further. With far less technical skill required on a sevens rugby pitch, offering a far more ) ”  ) only recently taken up the game, speed and    4&  abundance. Numbers are not a problem. “In terms of athlete numbers we’ve probably got  -*,,,      year,” Prusmack says. “Now, one-tenth of one per cent are going to make the NFL. What are all the other guys going to do?” Hopefully, play rugby sevens in a move that Prusmack and many others see as a natural progression. The switch from football to rugby, and viceversa, is an obvious one. With many of the skills being transferrable across both sports, particularly with sevens, it is no surprise to  4&7&)   of a raft of former football players. “The one thing you look at with these guys is that they are amazing athletes and we have quite a few      4&7&)   7()     of Olympic hurdler and former NFL wide-  )' 'D  4&   *,-,4&7&)  #: It is that sort of untapped talent, which otherwise would likely have gone to waste, that 4&7&)       will propel sevens’ popularity and player-base  4&!   )!' ()       number of world-class athletes that America produces every year. “When we train at the Olympic training centre they have a big database where an    ¡! -,, -,* seconds but I didn’t qualify for the Olympics, I weigh this much. What other sports can I ”!)  )-,,,    -,* -,,  ) 200 pounds. I don’t know if they can catch and pass yet but if they can see the atmosphere at /    A < &)  and we can attract those types of athletes then we can continue to promote the sport in the 4 & Given the extraordinary amount of talent on offer, the excitement of the sport and plans to expand the player base still further    0(77   tournament proposition similar to that of the ((!%  )     answer when asked whether rugby sevens can ever surpass any of the major American sports of baseball, football and basketball. He insists, though, that, “It can absolutely be bigger than     ”   You give an American kid a ball and he wants to run with it or throw it, he doesn’t want to kick it. It’s as simple as that.” “USA Rugby has been set up trying to use the English and South African model and it just doesn’t work in America.” 101 2010 12 Tom Love {filedir_26}SportsProMag_issue28_101-103.pdf [8072] [sportspro_december_2010_january_2011] SportsPro December 2010 / January 2011