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Volume 20 No. 46
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Hope, skepticism permeate U.S. rugby efforts

The entrepreneurs planning professional rugby leagues in the U.S. think the best way to build media, sponsorship and grassroots support is to launch a product as soon as possible. But there have been high-profile failures and delays, and hope and skepticism run in equal proportion across rugby circles.

The latest proposal is North American Super 7s, a concept developed by United World Sports that expands the standard rugby sevens format to make each match a viable standalone event. (Today, each sevens game takes less than 20 minutes to play and multiple matches are organized around single-site, multiteam tournaments.)

Founder and CEO Jon Prusmack has raised more than $5 million to run an introductory barnstorming tour after San Francisco hosts the Rugby World Cup Sevens in 2018, which he hopes will spur more investor interest in funding a full league in 2019 that would need financing of up to $40 million.

But he’s got competition. Four other bodies claim their own leagues, or precursors to them, are also coming by 2019. Prusmack dismisses them as hype.

“There is no pro rugby in America right now,” he points out.

It’s not for lack of talking about it. The Minnesota-based National Rugby Football League and California-based Grand Prix Network both claimed a launch was imminent earlier this decade but didn’t deliver. New York-based PRO Rugby did play a season in 2016, but its future is in doubt.

PRO Rugby got its start in 2015, when Doug Schoninger, a former bond trader, signed a deal with USA Rugby for an exclusive sanction on professional 15s in the U.S. He spent $7 million last year to operate the single-entity PRO Rugby league, which fielded teams in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Denver and Columbus. At the time, he said he was prepared to spend up to $30 million over three years to build the league.

But in December, he canceled players’ contracts because of a dispute with USA Rugby that led him to worry that his sanctioning wouldn’t be extended as he expected. Without any certainty of long-term protection against competitors, he’s reluctant to keep spending. Schoninger insists he will stage a competition in 2017 under his rights, but details are sparse so far.

“We had one season,” he said. “And the reason we don’t have a concurrent second season is because of the action of others.”

Grand Prix is the other business that holds an official sanction from USA Rugby. (UWS’s Super 7s isn’t a recognized discipline and is not eligible for sanctioning.) Grand Prix is owned by William Tatham, who along with his father ran the USFL Arizona Outlaws in the 1980s. He first acquired a sanction for the seven-man version, now played in the Olympics, in 2005, and recently extended it through 2024.

Five years ago, a Grand Prix press release said there was “overwhelming evidence” that “the time is right” for a pro sevens league. It promised to launch in 2013 but never did.

Now, Grand Prix is back, and Tatham says he is within weeks of announcing details for the Rugby Football League Million Dollar Champion Sevens, a $1 million prize purse sevens tournament to be held at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium in 2018. The plan is to have that pave the path to a league a year later, called the Grand Prix Rugby Football League.

Prusmack is skeptical. “What is Bill Tatham’s property?” Prusmack said. “He hasn’t done anything in 12 years except put out nice press releases.”

Tatham said he’s been frustrated, too, by the lack of action but insisted he’s not going to launch his business before it’s ready and risk alienating fans by putting a bad product on the field. Tatham estimates he’s spent $10 million on rugby so far.

“God bless Jon Prusmack, because other than me he’s the only guy writing checks,” Tatham said. “And so, he indirectly promotes sevens, and proves people will buy tickets, and has proven it can get good ratings on network television.”

Meanwhile, two other startups are promising to begin play soon in the 15s version: Major League Rugby, a Salt Lake City limited liability company owned by 10 existing club teams, which says it can launch in 2018, and the National Rugby Football League, which says it’s still working on its plans.

MLR Deputy Commissioner Nic Benson said Major League Rugby is running a lean central office and expects its member clubs to lock down venue deals, pay players and produce the games. Some of the clubs are seeking new local investors to transition from clubs to pro teams.

The league hopes by using existing club infrastructure and keeping costs low it can build slowly. “What we’re doing is a heavy lift,” Benson said. “It’s a five- to 10-year plan. We have to build this up, and we have to do this the right way, and we have to be smart about it.”

The NRFL says it has committed franchise buyers and executives with experience from other sports but declined to comment on its financial wherewithal, sanctioning or a start date.