The past few years have seen the rise of commercial endeavors by collegiate rugby teams. More teams are embracing a professional approach and more schools are embracing those teams, if not creating them in the first place. The result is a more competitive environment not only on the field but off of it. “Branding” and “product” are preached as much as tackling and set pieces. Sustained success at the Division 1 level requires as much acumen in business as rugby itself. The goals of television exposure leach focus from the traditional goals of player development and has begun to pervert what success means, co-opting what was originally determined on the field into something scored in contracts and ticket sales.
This is often where programs hit their ceiling. Practicing three times a week in matching kit meant you were Top 20 five years ago. Now, more high schoolers play. More collegiate varsity teams exist. More tickets are being sold. More games are on TV. USA Rugby’s D1A gets $250,000 a year. The Varsity Cup was formed with commercial intent. The Collegiate Rugby Championship airs on NBC. Rugby is in the Olympics. Teams stop to evaluate exposure and cost when deciding to attend a national championship.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The NCAA published a report a few years ago that said 22 athletic departments turned a profit. And that was 8 more than the previous year. Millions of dollars from football tickets, TV contracts, and apparel licenses and 22 can get in the black. The report went on to say that 50-60% of FBS football and men’s basketball programs, 4-5% of FCS football and men’s basketball programs, and 9-10% of non-football Division 1 men’s basketball programs made money. The only other sport mentioned was women’s basketball with 1% of institutions generating net positive revenue. The rest of the teams in any sport at any size institution spend more than they create.
Plain and simply: A financially positive rugby team won’t happen without cutting standard benefits of the average varsity sport. Scholarships, coaches, salaries, travel. What remains is the team. And the players. And the love of the game. Coaches can enhance this. Proper gear and nice travel can enhance this. Television and big stadiums can enhance this. Their enhancement is why they happen. Money exits the system in the form of player experience.
Television is a means not a goal. It generates interest and can highlight your investment plan. It can help a team engage alumni to help pay for a coach or a field. But a plan for covering basic player needs should be in place whether you are on TV or not. And it should be realistic. TV doesn’t solve any problems by itself. Nor does it teach tackling or pick teammates up. Money matters none on the field. The goal is player experience as all teams break even.