Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Old rugby story...still holds true (mostly)

The Cancer of the Alternative Sport

American rugby is a club, not a sport. For better or for worse, that’s all it is right now. While rugby struggles to take hold in the US, some of those who love the game most are holding it back.
Rugby guys are a dedicated bunch.
Coaches toil with no pay, players practice on grassless vacant lots, athletes pay their own travel costs, and selection to represent your country can mean having to quit your job. Old boys play their way into the hospital because their passion to play is stronger than their wrinkled bodies. Young athletes travel long road trips to play important matches in front of roaring crowds of zero.
Yet, with all this passion, we consider ourselves lucky to come away with one win in the World Cup. Why?

The answer at the tip of everyone’s lips is money. Rugby’s most pathetic pitch is greener than USA Rugby’s bank account. The Eagles are essentially a bunch of volunteers competing against well-paid professionals, and it shows on the field. It is easy to see the need for funds and while receiving financial support would solve many problems and open even more doors, it is not the real cause for America’s failure.

Alternative Sport
The real problem lies in the "alternative sport" culture fostered in clubs from coast-to-coast. A large majority of those who play rugby in the US love the culture more than the game. Countless write-ups in local papers and recruiting pitches tout the unique camaraderie and sportsmanship associated with rugby.
Fox telecasts are produced in a set made to look like a pub and post game parties are legendary to the point that most college students have been to one while never having attended a game. Rugby culture is truly an entity all its own, but pints in the pub have never equaled points on the board.
Nothing is wrong with a love for the lifestyle but it must be understood that as long as that is the focus and foundation of American rugby we will never win. For proof that culture, not money, is the issue at hand, one need look no further than last years brief Team Roc sponsorship.

Team Roc
Finally, after years of struggling in obscurity and poverty, some truly deep pockets were ready to empty in rugby’s direction. Here was a sponsorship from a company with not just millions at its disposal, but distribution and exposure as well! This was a record company experienced at getting its product into millions of homes in every nook and cranny of the country. They were ready to give our little sport a chance and how did rugby react?
We bucked.
What was the problem? Were there disagreements over how the money would be allocated? Was it arguments over player selection or coaching? Was it the schedule or game plan? Nope. Not a voice complained about any of these things, in fact no one complained of anything to do with the actual game itself. Yet the rugby public bucked, and bucked hard.
Articles and letters were written and conversations ensued over what this sponsorship would do, not to the team, but to the culture. The outcry and comments were truly amazing. Fears were aired over the image and propriety of the sponsor. This company was accused of promoting violence and debauchery.
Of course these concerns were coming from the same "blokes" who have made post match festivities famous for… violence and debauchery.
Concerns were voiced that the market associated with this sponsor would lower the sportsmanship and modest behavior that rugby demands. Did any of these critics watch the Tri-nations? I suppose George Gregan and Carlos Spencer are good buddies who never get riled up? Those Springboks are really known for their sportsmanship aren’t they?
Every American who watched the USA 7s on TV should remember back to their post game banter and see if it was centered on the play of the teams or on the rap soundtrack and advertisements. Most can’t remember the scores but they remember the music.

Not A Good Fit?
It was widely decided that this sponsorship was simply not a good fit. Why is that? Did the check bounce? Apparently the American rugger decided that somehow Hip-Hop was not as responsible as Guinness or Michelob. I wonder what image Vodafone, Ford or Steinlager portray.
It’s obvious that American rugby does not want to be a competitor but rather an "alternative" club of guys who share a passion for the same hobby. Not convinced? Try this test.
Visit a rugby chat-room and bring up the subject of gridiron. Then count the seconds before the subject shifts from rules of the game to end zone dances and all that is wrong with American society. It is unavoidable.
"Rugby players don’t dance after every tackle or pound their chests after every point," is a popular quote. Somehow it’s O.K. for New Zealand to dance before every match, and I guess the anti-celebration fans have never watched Fiji play. Nothing is sure but death, taxes, and conversations about American rugby eventually sinking in the swamp of, "I’m glad we aren’t football".

Attitude Adjustment Needed
The affect of the collective community should not be underestimated. If we rugby playing "Yanks" ever want to join the rest of our nation and its tradition of winning, there must be an attitude adjustment. Right now we are simply a clique crying over lack of attention.
How can we compete as Americans while trying our hardest to not let the sport become American? We say we want to grow and win. We tout how brotherly and accepting we are, when in reality we are simply looking for more people to join the club, enlarging our crowd of like-minded buddies.
If you see yourself as an exception, consider a few questions: how many players on your squad actually live in the neighborhood where your practice field is located? If you share the field with the local little league football team, do you see these neighbors as potential recruits or an annoyance? When a recruit or competing player shows up in baggy shorts, or wearing cornrows, do you think to yourself, "that isn’t what a rugby player looks like?"
A call must be put out to everyone in this country who loves the oblong ball, to re-evaluate what they want the sport to be. Maybe after we do this we can finally turn the corner. Maybe we can get Americans to play the game. Maybe we can get people to see the sport as an option and not just a foreign oddity. Maybe then American companies will fund us out of obscurity. Maybe then Americans will come across a match on TV and wonder what the score is rather than what that game is.

Maybe then we will win.


Corbie said...

Okay, you know I never go the 'serious' route when I post or comment but I may have to here. I have watched my husband, an incredible rugby player, live exactly what you describe in the article. Playing simply for the love of the game, helping fund other players so that they can do the same. He has coached, played, watched and organized more rugby than most people can wrap their mind around...all at a tremendous personal and financial cost.

There are wives (many) who tire of their husbands playing rugby and to some extent I don't blame them. It is physically taxing (a major understatement), financially draining, and hard on a family's schedule. But it keeps my husband in great physical shape, gives him his own sort of therapy, and makes him happy like very few things can.

The best part? Watching my husband play less and less every match even though he is still one of the best on the field. Why? Because he wants to grow the program and if that is to happen he has to give some playing time to some young guys who come out to practice and desperately want to be part of it all.

It is a fabulous sport filled with amazing people and I am proud that I have been able to witness it all from my front row wife seats.

Okay, next time, I am back to commenting in sarcastic fashion.

Linds said...

You've just opened my eyes to the world of Rugby. I'm going to go watch a few youtube videos now to get a visual picture of Rugby (as I really have never watched it...ever).

Rob said...

Interesting post. Previously I had thought you were trying to say that the current Rugby culture is incompatible with a truly professional league operating in America--now after talking to you I realize you are saying that by steadfastly maintaining that culture, people are in effect discouraging athletes who otherwise might be interested in playing the sport, if they weren't forced to adopt a new culture. Which makes sense--clearly there are plenty of American athletes who live by a different culture and listen to different music.

However, just to play devil's advocate, I wonder if rugby's culture is too valuable to let go. In other words, if the culture is what sets rugby apart and makes people passionate about it, then if you sacrifice the culture in order to bring in new athletes, then perhaps you risk the sport disappearing into the crowd of other sports. Then what would differentiate rugby from lacrosse, handball, hockey, and all the other sports out there? If rugby only really stood for the game itself, and the culture was basically the same as all the other sports' cultures (which in most cases means "doesn't really have a culture"), then would people care about it as much?

Perhaps you would gain some better athletes, but lose the best thing it has going for it--the ability to generate true passion in its participants because the sport is "different" from all the other sports. Without that culture, maybe it would slip into the "who cares" land currently occupied by handball in the US (which is supposedly big in the UK).

This is strictly a "devil's advocate" post, because I really don't know that much about rugby, despite having played it before, well sort of.

But one thing that came to mind was a comparison with rodeos. For many decades, rodeos have been a little-known or forgotten sport in this country. A big part of this was due to its "country" culture, which has never been cool in cities of any meaningful size. So it stayed in the periphery, with few people paying attention to it except for rural kids and people from ranching/farming backgrounds. But then something interesting happened. In the '90s going into the 00's, economic and technology advances gave many people a sudden overload of TV channels, pop culture programs, dozens of sports channels, and entertainment channels and venues. So many that most people couldn't even keep track of all the entertainment and sports channels and programs they had available--everything kind of blended in and so many things were so similar to each other. Then suddenly rodeos stood out as something that was VERY different. Suddenly some people started watching bullriding on the Vs. channel every once in a while, when they were bored of other stuff. And started attending rodeo events once in a blue moon. It was fun--they could dress up like cowboys and pretend for one night to be part of the "country" culture. And some of them ended up becoming fans of the sport. To a sport on the fringes, this had a huge impact. Suddenly the top bullriders in the country all became millionaires, something absolutely unheard of in previous decades. Instead of rodeoing as a hobby before you started your real job, people could actually make a lucrative career out of it. And I think a big part of this was that it was so different. It really stood out as something very unusual that you could go do. And I think the culture plays a part of the attraction, even though that was the very thing that was hurting the sport the most in previous decades.

brohammas said...

Its worth mentioning that this tide of everything on cable TV you mention, skipped right over rugby.

When I point out the focus on culture I'm not saying thats not bad in and of itself. what I am saying is that if you do want to win, or be competative, you cannot remain so exclusive and culture focused that you begin to devalue things like practice.
Evaluate where your club is pending money... travel cost and games, or parties and beer?

Market your sport for what it is, not for what its not. Don't try to be in America and not be American. If your club plays the game because you dont like football, don't expect to recruit football players.

What I decry is that there is a vast number of clubs in the US who are social at the core, and if these are the same who cry out about lack of exposure or international success, they may not be able to have it both ways.

The Us rugby board should go talk to the rodeo guys and learn some things.

Rob said...

That makes sense.

Sounds like US rugby can't decide what it really wants to be, or else too many people are making decisions based on differing opinions about what they want the sport to be.