Mike Friday, and Finding the Key to USA Rugby’s Growth

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PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 13: atai Leuta of United States of America is tackled by Rocky Khan of New Zealand during the HSBC rugby sevens match between the United States of America and New Zealand on May 13, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images for HSBC)

The growth of the US Sevens team is well documented. This is in no small part due to the leadership of head coach Mike Friday. Friday has been key to guiding the men’s team to unprecedented tournament victories. This is Texas Rugby’s Grant A. Cole, correspondent and rugby evangelist, goes so far as to say Friday is “one of the top five Coaches in the short game of World Rugby” comparing him to Sir Gordon Tietjens, Ben Ryan, Sean Ryan and Emil Signes. Finding the key to USA Rugby’s growth though, has been something of a contentious issue.

Friday has however courted some controversy recently, with an article penned for the Daily Mail. In essence, Friday has suggested that ‘if rugby in the US is to reach its potential, the key to development is through the Sevens team’.

Growing The Game

Firstly it has to be acknowledged, Mike Friday makes some very good points. The statements made have resonated with a number of supporters on Twitter.

Likewise Doug Coil from DJ Coil Rugby adds “Rugby Sevens (7’s) is easier to understand for spectators. Events like the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series are on broadcast TV. It’s fast pace is appealing to a wider audience.”

World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper however took exception to some of Friday’s points.

Friday did clarify his point was specifically aimed at the US rugby market, not the global game. However this does raise the question, are the 7’s the key to USA rugby’s growth in popularity, in the US?

The Strength of the Sevens Game

USA Sevens Head Coach Mike Friday (via usarugby.org)

Mike Friday was kind enough to speak to Last Word on Rugby to discuss his points further.

Firstly, as mentioned the US 7’s game has increased exponentially. In discussing what needs to happen to take the game to the next level, Friday said “We need investment into our program, so we are able to compete with the Top nations who have significantly more financial resources to fund their programs. And more importantly their academy programmes.

“The USA is a Tier One economy yet is resourced as a Tier 2/3 nation. However, Fiji is different to the other top teams, as whilst it may not be financially rich, it is ‘player talent rich’ which allows it to compete on its model.

“The reality for US Rugby (USR) is that our players have to sacrifice and live below the minimum wage to represent their country. Compared to other nations, whose players are remunerated significantly more which allows them to live comfortably–not hand to mouth, as the USA players are having to.”

The US Sevens team has produced phenomenal talent over the years. Most notable of these players, has been Carlin Isles. Reputed at his peak as ‘the fastest man in World Rugby.’ Perry Baker has now taken the game further, and then at the Rio Olympic Games, fans saw New England Patriots player Nate Ebner bringing rugby even more into the US public eye.

Further to those names, Doug Coil pointed out Chris Wyles, who played 7’s early in his career, before his most recent success with the Saracens in the Aviva Premiership.

Developing the Baseline in US Rugby

Friday also believes the investment in the game needs to happen earlier. In discussing what resources are lacking to grow the game at a high school level (or earlier) Friday said, “We need a number of things first and foremost. The schools/state education system to recognize the game as a credible, complimentary alternative team sport to the traditional  USA team sports.

“Promotion of the values that the game brings and that it is a game for all and relatively low in cost for the players to play (no expensive clothing to buy such as shoulder pads and helmets). We need an ‘educational peace’ with the other sports coaches, who see rugby as a threat rather than another game that will allow the young athlete to excel at football or basketball.

“Rugby also needs investment in a coaching-coaches program, to ensure that the game is introduced and coached properly.”

“This is a huge cost. I think currently there are a handful of development coaches for the whole of the USA. Now, compare that to NZ and England, and you see the magnitude of the task.

“This is why the NCAA and high school equivalent organizations in the States need to be involved in the process. The investment as a whole country is huge, as the reality is each state in the USA could be construed as a country. To give you context; Colorado is the size of France, and Texas the size of Europe.”

Commercial Success Urgently Needed

In order to gain the popularity Friday alludes to, the game of rugby needs to be a real commercial commodity. On this point, Friday commented “In USR, there is a huge opportunity for a 7’s Grand Prix between the NBC television windows of American Football and Basketball in June, July and August.

“The sporting public of the USA would embrace it, much in the way the IPL cricket runs or on a lesser scale, how the Carlton 7’s in Sri Lanka is run. This would allow exposure, development of talent and coaches, and provide a logical progression from College/Club events up to this; and then into the World Series.

“[One] suggested concept is six legs over eight weeks. A one day tournament with eight franchises, with 14 man playing squads, in a mixture of international invited sides, domestic international, best college and club players.”

He also mentioned AEG are looking to build a TV calendar, including overseas rugby. He adds, “the USA sporting public like to see their own players. That is why the other piece of the jigsaw is the Grand Prix. [This would assist in] ensuring [the] coverage of the USA National 7’s team is marketed, promoted. and televised as much as possible.

“All USA sporting supporters like nothing more than watching USA win.”

Sevens vs Fifteens – Growing the Game Further.

There are suggestions though from some, that while Sevens does play a role in raising rugby’s profile, it is not necessarily the key.

In discussing Friday’s views, Gift Egbelu from Giftime Rugby says “I think 7’s only appears to be the key to unleash rugby in the USA because it’s the only men’s side that has shown signs of winning at the top level. On the flip side, the women’s 15’s side appears to be more plausible at 15’s because it’s the one that has shown high levels of success.

“I agree with the idea that winning is central to getting the eyes of the public. But even more importantly, a show of ‘American sports identity’ is an even greater necessity to the embrace of rugby. The code isn’t as relevant.”

Grant A. Cole expands further, saying “Coach Friday states ‘there’s still a huge rugby-playing beast waiting to be unleashed in the USA… and the key lies in sevens’. The first part of that statement is dead-on. There is a beast waiting to be fed, then unleashed. However, while 7’s is part of the process in feeding and unleashing that beast, it is in no way ‘the key’.

Cole goes on to say “There is not one single key to feeding and to unleashing this rugby beast. There are several. Success in 7’s is one of those. However, 7’s is a limited pathway in the USA. With 22 players in a professional Daily Training Environment (DTE) receiving a pittance for their effort, it will not produce enough athletes to be considered an unleashed beast.”

Professional Rugby Options

“This is where a professional rugby 15’s competition is important.” Cole continues. “If Major League Rugby (MLR) kicks off their inaugural 2018 season with eight teams, that will mean 80 rugby athletes in a professional DTE. That’s a four-fold improvement over what the residencies in Chula Vista provide. That’s not even CLOSE to the number of rugby athletes needed in a DTE, for that beast to be dominant when unleashed.

“A professional rugby competition is but another key to this beast, though. Knowing the widespread growth of youth/HS rugby, there needs to be a technical coaching development program (as opposed to a certification program). And a ‘performance culture’ in the national teams pathway that provides clear, standard, and actual paths to becoming an Eagle or an American professional rugby player. All of these however, require revenue streams that we are nowhere near realizing.

Cole finished by commenting that, “7s is an important piece of the puzzle because the Olympics are front and center to the American psyche every four years. But it is not ‘the key’.”

South Africa v USA - IRB RWC 2007 Match Fourty
The USA team sing the national anthem during the Rugby World Cup 2007 between South Africa and USA. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Can the Fifteens Game be Viable?

There have been attempts in the fifteens (15’s) game, to get Rugby more commercially recognised. Rugby LAW never got off the ground. Pro Rugby USA failed after one season. Cole responds to these issues, saying “Americans are eternally optimistic and hopeful. Say what you will about the failed 15’s competitions, there has been no viable professional 7’s competition here, yet.

“That’s not to say there will be/won’t be. But when the math gets done, a 7’s series without enormous sponsorship does not provide enough of a ‘return on investment’ to even be a starter stateside. I don’t see 7’s as being much more than a money pit for USA Rugby/the US Olympic Committee, that struggles to be significant.

“Also, the ‘rugby fan base’ in America is made up of the rugby fanatics. Those current and former rugby players who love the game enough to watch it on a regular basis.”

Doug Coil adds, “There is support for professional rugby in the US. Major League Rugby has promoted a new league from nine existing USA clubs, where a separate organization was formed for those new professional sides.

“This way, each team already has a following. The matches would be on Friday or Saturday nights, with some on Sundays [a traditional American Football day]. This avoids conflict with the many club, college or youth match times on Saturday.

“There is also speculation that the Guinness Pro14 wants a team in Washington D.C. For MLR and Super Rugby 7’s this would create paid opportunities for players.

“In the case of Super Rugby 7’s, although the format differs from World Rugby’s Sevens Sevens, I could see paid opportunities for US Eagles Sevens Men & Women players.”

Keys to USA Rugby’s Growth

It needs to be reiterated, no one is disagreeing with Friday about the value of the Sevens. Doug Coil states “I agree with Mike Friday that the national team athletes are grossly underpaid. This needs to change for the USA teams to excel. USR needs to expand their revenue stream beyond membership dues.”

“I do feel that in the USA’s situation that involving players in rugby sevens will significantly help to grow USR. It is also easier to utilize cross-over athletes.”

Grant Cole also reiterates Friday’s point about US Fans. He says “Rugby must be a commercially viable product before it is a commercially viable spectator sport. At the moment, American rugby is not that. Americans love winners.”

He also adds “In the 7’s arena, coach Friday has us on a path to get to a winning place.”

Spectators, are something that has been both apparent, and missing. A full house was placed over Soldier Field, when the All Blacks played the Eagles and Ireland. But sadly, the Philadelphia crowds stayed away, when two Premiership sides played no more than two weeks ago. So the product is important, as are the competing entities.

US Rugby; the Underlying Discussion

There is a difference of opinions as to what the key to ‘unleashing the beast’ is. There is however consensus that the beast is there. While Friday may have polarised the view somewhat, there is something underlying this discussion. That is that US Rugby, with the right catalyst and resources, and could well explode.

Friday says it will never be as big as the NFL. It doesn’t have to be though. Rugby is a global sport. If Friday achieves his vision, the rugby world is going to be in for a big a wake-up call. Likewise, if Major League Rugby succeeds. The skills in USA Rugby are already there, the future development is scary.

Mike Friday may have raised some eyebrows with his comments. He’s also done something important. He’s got people talking…and he’s got them thinking. It will be very interesting indeed to see where these conversations lead.

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Authours note: My deepest thanks to Mike Friday, Grant A. Cole, Gift Egbelu and Doug Coil for their kind assistance, and commentary for this article.

“Main photo credit”