USA Rugby 2018: Year in Review

From the CEO:


As an eventful 2018 comes to a close, I can confidently look back on the year and appreciate what a meaningful stretch it has been. Through what has evidently been a challenging year, some incredible highs float to the surface and provide notable benchmarks we all can celebrate. Through it all, I want to thank each and every member, athlete, coach, referee, administrator and fan for their unwavering dedication to the sport of rugby. The very core of what we strive to support and build upon was rightfully displayed on a number of stages this year, where looking back on it all, is an absolute honor. On behalf of USA Rugby, I want to wish everyone a very happy holiday season and look forward to a momentous 2019.

Ross Young
Interim CEO, USA Rugby

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Oh what a year it has been.

Love, victory, movement, parody, trust, debate. All one-word terms that loosely encompass 2018 in American rugby. While structures, faces, rankings and direction have all seen change since this time last year, one constant still remains and that is the game of rugby was played.

The USA Rugby Men’s and Women’s National Teams set new benchmarks throughout the year, not only in results, but in the sporting landscape. The Men’s Eagles finish the year at No. 12 in the World Rugby rankings thanks to an unbeaten streak through the Americas Rugby Championship and a pair of notable wins over Scotland and Samoa.

The Women’s Eagles made their anticipated return, not only on home soil, but in front of an American crowd like any the program has seen before. With a new full-time duo of GM Emilie Bydwell and Head Coach Rob Cain in the driver’s seat, the No. 5 ranked squad is situated with a foundation to target a New Zealand 2021 podium.

The Women’s Eagles Sevens notably made waves in 2018 after completing their first ever HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series with a pair of medals; earning silver in Dubai and bronze in Langford. While still in the calendar year, the 2019 season kicked off strong under new Head Coach Chris Brown with another silver at Glendale, officially welcoming the women’s sevens circuit back to the United States.

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Las Vegas is still on high after the Men’s Eagles Sevens shook the rugby world with their first ever gold medal win at home. Setting up an electric energy in San Francisco mid-summer, Mike Friday’s squad left a lasting impression on American sports fans that was poetically documented through the groundbreaking series, The Pioneers.

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The future remains bright for each program as 2018 saw over 20 assemblies of the USA Rugby High Performance development teams, from High School All-Americans to Falcons and Selects. The Boys High School All-American Sevens ventured to Buenos Aires placing 5th in the Youth Olympic Games while the Men’s Collegiate All-American Sevens laid a stamp on global opposition with a 3rd place finish at RugbyTown 7s. Despite loses to Canada and England in the Tri-Nations Cup, the Women’s Junior All-American assembly proved to be dynamic as four athletes from the squad would go on to earn caps with the Women’s Eagles in November.

Off the field, the launch of the C.A.R.E Program and Project SOAR begin to further support the extended success of each USA Eagle and cement the indelible impact left by departing High Performance General Manager, Alex Magleby. After the new year, Magleby will move on from his role with USA Rugby, but keep with the game as CEO of the New England Free Jacks of Major League Rugby.

Individual athletes made headlines this year with Perry Baker collecting his second consecutive World Rugby Men’s Sevens Player of the Year honor and Carlin Isles finishing atop the series try scoring charts. Olympians Ryan Carlyle and Zack Test announced their official retirement after memorable careers and to the pleasure of fans alike, ensured their continued involvement in rugby.

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With Rugby World Cups and Olympic Games on the visible horizon, the upward trajectory of each national team remains encouraging for fans and the organization.

In support of those teams, USA Rugby fundraising efforts again broke the $1M barrier for the 4th straight year. With the help of the newly assembled Eagles XV Club, new contributions have been established to fund the Men’s and Women’s fifteens side to the effect and magnitude of the Golden Eagles supporter group. The included addition of a Supporter option within USA Rugby membership and increased donations from the community helped carry the total funds over the expected seven-figure goal line.

The successes at the top level remain part of community rugby as 2018 Club and College D1 competitions again overlapped with the international teams and saw noteworthy finishes each championship season. In the women’s club world, the San Diego Surfers owned the top spot with titles in 7s and 15s. Having won the Club 7s National Championship in New York and Women’s Premier League (WPL) title in Georgia, the Surfers became only the second team ever to win both tournaments in the same year. No easy task, particularly in sevens, as competition reform reduced the number of qualifiers in 2018, providing one of the more competitive Club 7s seasons to date. The WPL celebrated 10 seasons this Fall while also re-introducing promotion/relegation to the league, bringing Life West onto the roster of teams for 2019.

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In the D1 collegiate bracket, it was the year of Lindenwood. Having claimed National Championships in Women’s 7s and 15s, along with a title in Men’s 7s and a 15s D1A semifinal appearance – there was no stopping the Midwest rugby powerhouse. The women of Dartmouth won their first NIRA title, dethroning three-year champion Quinnipiac while Vassar won their first Fall College Championship more recently in North Carolina. The five-year streak of Life vs Saint Mary’s came to an end in D1A as Life defeated Cal in the May National Championship, furthering the notion that parity and quality competition is continuing to grow in the largest competitive demographic within USA Rugby. The National Small College 15s Cup Champions Iowa Central Community College had an amazing showing winning their first title. While NSCRO Challenge Cup winners MiraCosta College rounded out the mens 15s brackets. On the women’s side, NSCRO Womens 15s Champions Wayne State continued to dominate the table taking home the title. NSCRO 7s winners Claremont College men were crowned national champions, and Wayne State continued their winning ways with the women taking home the national 7s title once again.

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Domestic rugby again made international headlines in 2018 with the Gotham Knights finishing runner up at the 2018 Bingham Cup held in Amsterdam and the announcement of the Golden Oldies landing in Denver come summer 2020.

Continuing the notion of big rugby stages, it was an action-packed year of domestic events ranging from community competition to a first ever Rugby World Cup on American soil. The year was understandably headlined by the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 hosted in San Francisco from July 20-22. The historic event set a handful of US records from attendance (100,000+) to viewership as the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts on NBC earned two of the networks top three rugby broadcasts on record. A total of 8.7 mil
lion unique viewers tuned in throughout the span of the tournament.

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While Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 did not result in a cash positive venture for the union, the investment made into the commercial viability of rugby was sizable enough to reflect in positivity. Thanks to the efforts of the tournament legacy program, Impact Beyond, the three-day parade donated approximately $200,000 to Bay Area youth rugby programs and engaged over 22,000 kids across 85 schools. In the eyes of our sport’s future, the Rugby World Cup Sevens beacons as a meaningful inspiration.

The Americas Rugby Championship returned to the United States for a 3-game set with two landing in the Los Angeles area. In partnership with AEG Rugby, the soon to be home of the 2028 Summer Olympics was re-engaged with the spirit of international competition after the Men’s Eagles pulled off a last second victory over Argentina XV. The HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series returned to the US after a year hiatus, fittingly landing in RugbyTown at Infinity Park of Glendale, CO. With impressive attendance and the Women’s Sevens earning a silver medal in front of a home crowd, the opening round of the series established a strong foundation for the event to grow upon in years to come.

The Rugby Weekend brought its 2018 edition back to Chicago in the form of a “Triple Header” with The Legacy Agency again partnering with USA Rugby to bring the fall spectacle to life. The Men’s and Women’s Eagles faced off with the Māori All Blacks and New Zealand Black Ferns respectively, bookending a match between Ireland and Italy. Again hosted at Soldier Field, the three-game set was a first of its kind and provided an extensive day of elite international rugby on both the men’s and women’s side.

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The Emirates Airline Summer Series landed in Houston and Denver this past June. Notably the Men’s Eagles upset No. 6 Scotland in the humid Texas air, additionally the USA vs Russia match in Denver was paired with a Friday night lead in game between the Glendale Raptors and Houston SaberCats at Infinity Park. With the emergence of MLR, USA Rugby will continue to partner with the league and strive to coordinate national team matches with the growing rugby markets.

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The USA Rugby National Championship Series continues to grow with an estimated 16% growth in attendance across the fall and spring championships. Continued end-to-end coverage of the USA Rugby Club and Collegiate Championships brought each match to viewers digital devices following the new partnership with FloRugby.

FloRugby took a massive leap into the USA Rugby space in May after acquiring The Rugby Channel from Rugby International Marketing. With extensive coverage across domestic and international competition, the programing on FloRugby increased by 51 live events and over 200 matches. Aside from live programing, FloRugby continued their content support with USA Rugby through on-and-off the pitch features including player profiles with the likes of Mike Te’o, Kelsi Stockert and Cam Dolan.

Linear coverage kept its mark on rugby throughout the year with CBS Sports expanding its D1A coverage to both the semifinals and championship, as well as ESPN promoting the Men’s Sevens final in Las Vegas to ESPN2. Much has of course been recognized around NBC and NBC Sports coverage of the Rugby World Cup Sevens.

The digital presence of USA Rugby hit an all-time high across, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The “Big Three” social media platforms saw over 80 million impressions and 1.4 million engagements. The 24% increase in engagement from 2017 shows that rugby fans are not only seeing content on a daily basis, but more importantly, interacting with it. As social media continues to be the most accessible and interactive touch-point with USA Rugby fans, the focus on bringing each follower more personably into the storyline will become a focus in 2019.

Each achievement above understandably deserves its spotlight, but the foundation of those benchmarks continues to be a grassroots institution of growth that, in its own right, had a remarkable year. Training and Education within USA Rugby saw incredible growth as more referee courses were delivered than any year prior. Encouragement from around the community drove this progress to not only build up the population of officials, but also to educate developing athletes on the rules and flow of the game. Prior to the start of 2018, the USA Rugby Training and Education department set a goal to substantially increase the number of women certified as coaches and referees, far exceeding the target. With the goal of supporting more women in leadership roles, the progress has set a new standard for rugby development.

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Additional courses were made available to the public, including Introduction to Technical Zone and Citing. Furthermore, an intro to USA Rugby Education was developed to both give insight into the union’s academic strategy and offer first steps toward becoming a World Rugby educator. To ensure a broad audience has the opportunity to access each course, all are now offered in Spanish.

Youth and Rookie Rugby welcomed four new Regional Development Officers (RDO) bringing the total to seven and coast-to-coast representation. 2018 ends with a record number of High School varsity rugby programs across the country, tallying 59 registered with USA Rugby. The dual benefit to this particular growth see’s rugby more recognized as a standard scholastic sport as well as school funding coming into play for those athletes.

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In reflection of it all, we can take a look back on what was a very transitional year in American rugby. CEO Dan Payne moved from the offices in Lafayette to a leadership position with Rugby Americas, continuing his influence on the organization from a new perspective and leading future development with North and South America as a whole. Ross Young was welcomed in as interim CEO following Payne’s departure and has led the organization into what will be a pivotal stage in the sport’s history. New members were additionally welcomed to the Board of Directors as Julie Lau, Jim Brown, Paul Santinelli and Agustín Pichot joined the leadership group. The ultimate goal going into the new year for Young and USA Rugby will be to reintegrate the commercial operation of the union and reevaluate a purposeful direction to follow a robust strategic plan.

Understandably, meaningful change never happens overnight, or even in the span of a year. However, when a 10,000-foot view is taken, there can always be some positive demonstrations of progress visible in front of us.

Only days remain on the 2018 calendar and as ruggers from each corner of the nation begin to settle into the holiday season, USA Rugby again forwards a sincere thank you for the past year and fixates its eyes on a fundamental future.