The 2011-12 IRB Sevens tournament is shaping up to be possibly the most critical in USA Rugby history. Since Sevens rugby was announced as an Olympic sport in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the game has been gradually gaining momentum. In October 2010, USA Rugby became a full member of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), thus initiating the process that will put all USOC resources behind the USA Sevens program.
USOC funds all programs on a four-year cycle; However, wary of developing programs in China and Russia, the rugby program is receiving support a year earlier in regards to access to training facilities and modest full-time training contracts. The USA Eagles finished 12th in the 2010-11 IRB Sevens rankings, however they will need to show that they may be a medal shot in 2016 to attract a share of the $ 43.5 million + USOC funds.
USOC funding for National Governing Bodies (NGB) is performance-based. The NGB will be divided into three categories. Those characterized as “founding” organizations will have funding priority. The Foundation’s NGBs are those like swimming and athletics, which will generate the most medals at the Olympics. Medal Opportunity NGBs are second in line. These NGBs are likely to have a chance to win a medal at the next Olympics if they receive sufficient financial support.
The third and the whole of NGB are defined as “development” organizations. These organizations are unlikely to receive assistance for their USOC teams, but will instead receive support for organizational development and administrative support in areas such as marketing and governance.
The process of evaluating which level USA Rugby will enter has already begun. The USOC takes into account the performance of the team, the medals available, the relevance of the sport to the American public, and the resources requested by the NGB.
The USOC will allocate funds in 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 is capable of winning at future Olympics. That process will begin for summer sports organizations in the next two months.
Effectively, this means that NGBs like USA Rugby cannot completely depend on the USOC for their success, but must instead develop programs that generate revenue through increased participation and higher profiles.
There are already positive signs for the developing United States Rugby program. They are the hosts of the 2012 World Junior Rugby Trophy, where a victory will see them promoted to compete in the 2013 Junior World Cup. They are one of the fundamental teams that compete in all the events of the IRB Rugby Sevens tournament, and they are the hosts a highly successful leg of Seven’s tour.
Furthermore, participation in rugby grew by 350% between 2004 and 2011. The United States has more registered players than Wales and Scotland in absolute terms. Perhaps most significant for an Olympic sport is that the United States now has more female rugby players than any other country in the world.
There is no doubt that winning an Olympic medal will translate into massive interest and increased participation in rugby union in the United States. 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 portion of USOC funding as a medal opportunity is crucial if rugby in the US is to move from a majority-participation sport to the professionalism enjoyed by its counterparts around the world.