Exclusive: USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne talks growing the game Stateside
It could be said that USA Rugby chief executive Dan Payne accepted a hospital pass of sorts when he was appointed to the role last year.
The bankruptcy of the union’s kit supplier and unfavourable exchange rates had left the governing body’s balance sheet in a mess while the latest attempts to get a professional domestic league off the ground were faltering as was USA Rugby’s relationship with organisers PRO Rugby.
The previous year’s Rugby World Cup had failed to provide a single win for the USA Eagles and the relatively recent decision to create a for-profit commercial arm – Rugby International Marketing – and then sell equity to overseas investors remained a concern for many.
But Payne, a former Eagles international forward an All-American wrestler, has shown he can weather a tackle or two and his resilience has been rewarded.
Rugby’s return to the Olympics and the subsequent media attention provided a welcome boost in terms of public awareness and the Eagles have booked their passage to the 2019 Rugby World Cup as the Americas 1 qualifier for the first time ever.
The US Women also finished fourth at the recent Women’s Rugby World Cup and the anticipation is building ahead of the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens that will be staged in San Francisco next summer.
Issues remain including the recruitment of a replacement for out-going Eagles coach John Mitchell and there is still no clarity regarding the future of a professional domestic league but Payne was in positive mood when he spoke to Graham Jenkins the past year and the future.
Your first year has certainly been one to remember?
“It’s been a good challenge and we’ve made progress the last year. We had some different circumstances that arose that you could never predict, but we have navigated them and the organisation is strong and membership, awareness, participation and events and all the things we need to continue to do to drive the game forward are on a continued upward trajectory. In that regard things are moving in the right direction.”
You have played and coached at every level of the game in the States so it would appear you have a unique understanding of the task at hand?
“I do. I can empathise with everyone at every level in our country. I have a good grasp and appreciation for what people are up against and what some of the solutions are and what we need to do to try and frame how we move forward."
“I think I have a lot of experience that is valuable but at the same time pulling everything collectively together helps me think that I am ready to sit in this chair – but nothing has helped me develop and grow and gain the insight that one needs more so than the last 14 months of actually sitting at this desk.”
What is the biggest step forward you have taken in that time? Getting the union’s financials under control?
“Yes, without a doubt. We’re almost three quarters through this year and on track to deliver a strong budget come the end of December and that was what we needed to do first and foremost in 2017."
“But at the same time we were able to deliver on all the initiatives we wanted to put forward, maybe not as robustly as we wanted to, but we were able to allocate resources to youth and pre-High School rugby here which is another thing we have to do."
“Our smallest membership is 14 and under, so until that is our largest area of membership, hopefully 10 years from now, we’ll be trying to play a lot of catch up.”
Is increasing playing numbers the most pressing issue you now face?
“Without a doubt, we need to continue to grow. Rugby of all things is a nuanced sport, you need hours of playing the game, hours of decision making, hours of skills repetitions to gain the understanding to be able to do it well, and in order to build a great base you need to do it at a young age."
“We have a lot of people who have done it later in their athletic careers, I think to each of us who have been a part of that we would say we need the sport to progress past the point where people pick up the game late and still make it work.”
The sport has previously relied heavily on those who play rugby as a second sport or those who have failed to make a career in American Football or another pro sport – is that still the case?
“Right now we have a database of 110 athletes who are playing NCAA Division 1 basketball, football, soccer and other sports because they can get a scholarship doing it but they played 4-5 years of rugby in High School. It was their other sport so we know that if they don’t go on and play professionally in that sport they are taking on at university, they have had that formative training and they can come back to the game at 21, 22 and rely on having that base of understanding to the game.”
It helps when your elite teams are producing inspirational performances?
“Our approach has got to be multi-pronged. If we just put a lot of resources at the top and aren’t also stoking the flames of growth at the youth level then we don’t have the increased base or sample size of kids to get exposed to the best women’s or men’s players at the elite level."
“At the same time they need athletes and teams they can aspire to emulate, as we all do when we are young, role models to entice us to stay in the game It needs to be both, a commitment to youth, we’re just developing all across the board, so it is hard to say one spot is more important than any other, I think it is just important to recognise, and I think you’d find that worldwide, that you have to continue to focus on growing at the youth. It’s been a task and it will continue to be a focal point of what we do going forward.”
Next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens is potentially another great recruitment tool?
“It is massive. We talk about needing to develop resources and awareness and participation numbers and to be able to do that as we also need to unlock a variety of different markets and the commercial partners in those markets that then help fuel the growth, and this gives us the stage and the platform to be able to do that."
“We’ve got almost 60,000 tickets sold for the three-day event, my goal is next July, at the end of the World Cup, the performances will be what they will be, but to be able to say we put 100,000 people through the turnstiles at the World Cup Sevens over a three-day event in the United States will be a nice quote we can confidently say towards the end of July next year and that’s something that people will understand. If you can use the 100,000 fans milestone as a lead in it pulls a lot of weight.”
“I think San Francisco is also such an amazing market for us, both internationally and domestically. You are 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, you are 90 minutes from Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, the best wine country in the United States, you are two hours from Lake Tahoe, two hours from Pebble Beach, the world famous golf course, then you also have the Golden Gate Bridge and everything else that San Francisco offers."
“To be able to attach that to rugby is something that we are going to put a lot of resources behind and use to drive the game forward here.”
It makes sense that a bid to host the Rugby World Cup will eventually follow?
“We don’t want to get out in front of ourselves, we have to be able to walk before can run, before we can even think about doing anything at the next level."
“You are right, you want to be able to show that you can put on a successful World Cup and carry out all the logistics and different aspects to it. We want to prove it to ourselves as much as we want to prove it to World Rugby, we want to learn from it, it’s not just about getting to the 2027 World Cup, it’s about learning and continuing to develop people, to be able to run a large scale rugby event in the United States because we can’t have a World Cup next summer and think we’re going to get a 2027 bid or wait until 2027."
“We need to back that up with successful events throughout our country, consistently, and to do that, a lot of things we don’t have in the US people wouldn’t think of – it’s hard to even find camera operators who understand the game and are able to keep the ball in the frame."
“On production, there are all these different components needed to drive the game forward, we need to continue to develop, run stadium event operations, all the different aspects that are specific to rugby that we are slowly doing as we have more large scale events educating the event personnel and TV and production crews about how to operate It’s a good journey and a lot of fun.”
The English Premiership returns to your shores this month with Newcastle Falcons set to tackle Saracens in Philadelphia – what does that fixture offer you?
“It brings elite rugby to the United States, it’s a win-win situation I think, Premiership Rugby gets the opportunity to display and look into a market that they are obviously intrigued by, as are many around the world right now, trying to figure out what the rugby market in the United States might consist of."
“What we know is that it is something that definitely needs to continue to grow and we are doing all we can to fuel that growth. A game of that standard leaves a large footprint in terms of intellectual property and not just on the rugby side but on the rugby business side with the executives who will be coming too, it’s just immense."
“We need to partner with third party entities as we try to grow the game as we don’t have the resources within our union to execute everything we need to and take on the associated risk of bringing in these opportunities. As we say here in the States, if we don’t ht the ball out of the park and make good contact, we don’t have the margins for error."
“So to have that calibre of player, coaching, administrators come to our country is great, the intellectual property that they leave and sprinkle around the week that they spend here is invaluable and that is where we benefit.”
Premiership Rugby has also set up a player and coach exchange programme?
“Any time people, entities or groups that want to come, it is not just about the footprint that happens around the game, and this is one thing that Premiership Rugby believes strongly along with the other groups and leagues that are looking at staging things in the United States, we need to make sure there is a grassroots component to it, that our coaches are getting educated, our players are getting a chance to not only develop their skill set and mindset as the coaches, but are also getting to watch a first class product on the field. That is something we don’t get here in the States with the desired frequency.”
The Premiership is not the only league interested in tapping into the US market with the PRO14 also reportedly considering basing a franchise in the country. Is that attention flattering or frustrating as you try to grow your own base?
“When you have 300m people in your country, you can probably insert an interest from a worldwide market in about any particular product, if it isn’t in the States how could it benefit from being in the States?"
“I think as time passes and our markets continue to grow opportunities will present themselves, there will continue to be opportunities that will fuel growth and awareness of the game."
“It is flattering, every league is in a business, they are looking to see what they can do and how best they can expand their horizons and we are respectful and appreciative of that.”
How important is a successful professional domestic league to your plans for the sport?
“I think you have to have a strong domestic competition to grow, it is imperative. We need strong competitions at the top level to prepare all of our players and to continue to turn fans onto the game."
“Everybody understands at every level, as you look to a higher level of expertise in any sport, there is an allure and appreciation of that level of athleticism and competence. It is crucial that we continue to drive the elite side of rugby in America with the highest quality of domestic competition we can."
“We have 3200 miles from east to west coast and 2000 miles from north to south, it’s a very large country and a lot of people in different markets that can benefit in a lot of different ways."
“I often say to people, it is rugby in America, there are no buses! To go from one competition to another it is a plane ride usually and that gets quite costly so we have to look at ways to have competitions that may benefit from close proximity to one another as well.”
A fully professional domestic set-up would also help you secure the services of your leading players and ensure no questions about their release?
“Our domestic competition is a good bit away from being able to offer the salaries that some of the top pros in Europe are making so it would be hard to bring them home in the short term."
“We understand that a lot of our players will get opportunities to play abroad and sometimes they are consistently on the rosters of those teams but sometimes they are there for cover during the international windows."
“So we have to strike a delicate balance, understanding that it is their livelihood and not pull them away during the international window. We have to pick and choose, work with the players and the teams out of respect as we want our players to have those opportunities.”
Much of the US sporting culture revolves around ‘star’ quality, be that LeBron or Tom Brady or Roger Federer. Does rugby in the States needs its own ‘star’?
“Yes, definitely and that comes through in time. Perry Baker is having a lot of success in that regard on the Sevens side of things, we have several on the women’s side that are doing the same."
“In every league you have your David Beckhams, your Cristiano Ronaldos, you have those people that are the stars that people can attach themselves to and really drive the branding of that competition and that would be one of the advantages of hopefully eventually having something domestically, that our best players are getting covered by media outlets in the US."
“It’s hard, sometimes players can come back from Europe after several years and because there is not the frequency of coverage here it is tough to jump back into the landscape where people don’t respect you for all you have achieved.”
Do you think you that Tier 2 nations get enough support from World Rugby?
“Yes as we would not be able to compete or do 75% of things we do, at least on the men’s side of things, without World Rugby’s support."
“I think World Rugby does what is can do throughout the world, they have an obligation to grow the game and support countries but it is also up to those countries to continue to invest and grow and push things through in their own landscape and that takes time."
“I am thankful for all the support we get from World Rugby to grow the game here because without it we would not be able to make the ground and the progress that we have made.”
Do you think the sport in general is in good shape?
“I think so, there’s growth and bit of a shift and reorganisation in different parts of the world but that is to be expected."
“Sometimes you have to change or die, that famous quote, there are a lot of intelligent people making tough decisions, but ultimately the game will prevail and it is such an amazing game with amazing people that it will continue to grow."
“There are some markets that have a way to go – like ours. I thought of that when I was watching the World Cup draw in Japan. I was looking at the top bands and I turned to the person next to me, who was very entrenched with a Tier 1 country, and I said, ‘Man, how far are we from seeing anyone new break into that top eight?"
“The first two bands were teams you would pretty much expect and then you look at the next band and there is one that could potentially make it up, but the drop off is substantial.”
Have you been able to learn from other unions?
“One of the things that has been most pleasing and surprising has been the community that is international rugby, the support and the insight and mentoring and other CEO’s and executives making themselves available for any sort of question, or any intel of debrief, has been phenomenal. The rugby community have been very, very helpful and quick to come forward to me.”
Do you miss playing today?
“Some days I feel like I am still playing! Since I finished playing I have had a great set of new challenges and chapters in my life, I think that when your body is done trying to compete physically you still have that internal drive to wake up and achieve and continue to challenge yourself and get better, grow and learn."
“The last 10, 11, 12 years since I stopped playing, I have had some amazing opportunities to learn and grow and that is all I can ask for especially this last 14 months.”
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