The 2011-12 IRB Sevens tournament is shaping as arguably the most critical in USA Rugby’s history. Since rugby union Sevens was announced as an Olympic sport in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the game has been gradually gaining momentum. In October 2010 USA Rugby was made a Full Member of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), in doing so starting the process that will put the full resources of the USOC behind the USA Sevens program.
The USOC funds all programs on a four-year cycle, however wary of the developing programs of China and Russia, the rugby program is receiving support a year earlier in the way of access to training facilities, and modest full-time training contracts. The USA Eagles finished 12th in the 2010-11 IRB Sevens standings, however will need to show they can be a medal chance in 2016 to attract a share of the $43.5million+ funding from the USOC.
USOC funding for National Governing Bodies (NGBs) is based on performance. NGBs will be split into three categories. Those characterised as “foundation” organisations will get funding priority. Foundation NGBs are those such as swimming and track & field, who will generate the most medals at an Olympics. Medal Opportunity NGBs are second in line. These NGBs are likely to have a chance to win a medal in coming Olympics given enough financial support.
The third and set of NGBs are defined as “development” organisations. These organisations are unlikely to receive aid for their teams from the USOC, instead receiving support for organisational development and administrative support in areas such as marketing and governance.
The process of evaluating which tier USA Rugby will come into has already started. The USOC takes into account team performances, the medals available, the sport’s relevance to the American public and the resources asked for by the NGB.
The USOC will allocate funds across those three categories after reviewing each NGB’s high-performance plan, which outlines what programs an NGB plans to run for its elite athletes and how many medals it believes it’s capable of winning at a future Olympics. That process will begin for summer sports organizations in the next two months.
Effectively this means that NGBs such as USA Rugby cannot be completely reliant on the USOC for their success, and instead they must develop programs that generate revenue via increased participation and higher profiles.
There are already positive signs for the developing USA Rugby program. They are the hosts of the 2012 Junior World Rugby Trophy where a win will see them promoted to compete in the Junior World Cup in 2013. They are one of the foundation teams who compete in all events on the IRB Rugby Sevens tournament, and they host a highly- successful leg of the Sevens tour.
On top of this, participation in rugby grew by 350% between 2004 and 2011. The US has more registered players than Wales and Scotland in absolute terms. Perhaps more significantly for an Olympic sport, the US now has more female rugby players than any other country in the world.
There is no question that winning an Olympic medal will translate to massive interest and increased participation in rugby union in the US. However, rightly or wrongly, the USOC does not fund sports for participation or development. It has a clear and unequivocal mandate to win Olympic medals. Securing a decent slice of USOC funding as a Medal Chance is crucial if rugby union in the USA is to move from a largely participation sport towards the professionalism enjoyed by its counterparts worldwide.