On numerous occasions I’ve pointed out the parallels between rugby and handball in America.
- Minor sports in the U.S. that are very popular in other portions of the world
- Sports where the U.S. has struggled to be competitive internationally
- Sports where an influx of expats that have boosted growth in the U.S.
- Sports where outsiders see the U.S. as a market with great potential
- Sports which Americans often play for the first time in college
But, there are also significant differences. Most tellingly, while both sports are minor U.S. sports, USA Rugby is still a lot bigger than handball. Perhaps 100 times bigger in terms of number of athletes and 30 times bigger in terms of budget. Rugby has also made some major inroads in terms of television exposure and National Team performance.
But, while rugby has made significant progress they currently are in the midst of governance issues that will both sound familiar and serve as a cautionary tell as USA Team Handball plots out its future plans.
This recent rugby podcast provides a pretty good summary of what’s happened with USA Rugby in the past couple of years and is worth a listen to anyone interested in USA Team Handball governance issues.
Rugby PatCast: Congress’ Lewis unload on USA Rugby governance: Link
A short primer on some of the subjects covered so you can better contextually understand the discussion:
- Pro Rugby: The first professional rugby league in the U.S. that played 1 season in 2016. The owner is now suing USA Rugby for breach of contract. The second professional league (Major League Rugby (MLR)) is now playing its first season.
- Rugby International Marketing (RIM): A for profit entity established to better market rugby in the U.S. (now in the process of going bankrupt)
- The Rugby Channel: A digital streaming (Over the Top (OTT)) channel that RIM established totally devoted to rugby. (it lost over $4M and was recently sold to Flosports for pennies on the dollar)
- USA Rugby Congress: A large body that in theory represents USA Rugby’s membership to the USA Rugby Board (I think USA Team Handball may have had a similar body at one time, but if so, it was a long time ago)
- USA Rugby Board: Very similar to the USA Team Handball Board. Currently they’ve had numerous resignations due to RIM’s failures
- USA Rugby Nominating Committee: Very similar to the USATH Nominating & Governance Committee: They are responsible for selecting the new members to the USA Rugby Board. (Note the discussion on the qualities that prospective board members should have)
- Rugby World Cup 7s: 7s is the version of rugby that’s played in the Olympics. The U.S. is holding its first ever major championship this July in San Francisco
- Rugby World Cup: Similar to the Soccer World Cup this event is held every 4 years and the goal is to eventually have the U.S. host this major event. (and, of course one could imagine USATH having a similar goal one day to host the IHF WC)
All told, though, while the challenges discussed are immense there’s still lots of room for optimism for USA Rugby. The sport has never had greater TV exposure. The Pro MLR has had outstanding attendance in some cities like Seattle (5,000 fans). Grass roots efforts have started to migrate from colleges to high schools. The National Team for the first time last weekend fielded an entirely professional side, with many of the athletes playing for top clubs overseas.
Yes, USA Team Handball would gladly, willingly trade places with USA Rugby in a heartbeat. Even if we had to take all those governance issues at the same time. Not a trade that can be made, but understanding what a similar team sport is going through sure can provide some lessons as handball seeks similar progress and growth in the U.S.
Yes, maybe conceivably we could take all the good lessons and avoid all the bad ones USA Rugby is now working through.