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Volume 20 No. 46
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Sanctioning stamp of approval a hot-button topic

In 2015, the startup National Rugby Football League executed one of the more high-profile failures in trying to get a pro league off the ground.

After running talent combines that lured intrigued American football players, it promoted an exhibition game between American players against the Leicester Tigers, an English Premiership side. But the match was abruptly canceled because it lacked a sanction from USA Rugby, making it effectively impossible for most players to play.

The concept of sanctioning is a hot-button topic in rugby. Officially a process that extends liability insurance coverage to events, it’s also become a tool of the governing body to limit the Wild West of rugby entrepreneurialism. Players on sanctioned club teams or national teams, in either the U.S. or elsewhere, can be punished for participating in non-sanctioned events, a major complication due to the United States’ limited domestic talent pool.

By issuing exclusive sanctions to a single league for 15s and a single league for sevens, the governing body is signaling its preference to a promising but limited marketplace, said David Sternberg, CEO of Rugby International Marketing, the business created by USA Rugby and several minority partners to commercialize the sport in the U.S.

“If there were three or four leagues, or would-be leagues, asking for commercial support, it would be important to ask: Who is actually sanctioned to do that by USA Rugby?” Sternberg said.

Currently, two startup leagues are sanctioned: William Tatham’s Grand Prix Network, which is proposing a $1 million sevens tournament in 2018 as a precursor to a league launching in 2019; and PRO Rugby, which played a season in the 15s version in 2016. Tatham’s sanctioning for sevens is locked up through 2024, and PRO Rugby, owned by Doug Schoninger, has 15s sanctions through April 2018, though the duration of that contract is in dispute with USA Rugby.

Both Tatham and Schoninger believe the sanctions effectively grant them a monopoly on the professional rights to their rugby versions. But the groups proceeding without a sanction don’t think it’s so clear cut.

United World Sports founder Jon Prusmack says he can populate his “Super 7s” league with college club athletes, and Major League Rugby’s Deputy Commissioner Nic Benson said his league is “ready to move forward” without a sanction and is in line with USA Rugby’s interests.

UWS President Jonathan First predicted sanctioning would end up in court if any of the leagues eventually provide a viable professional option for elite players.

“My view is, players are going to try to make a living out of this as opposed to playing for the World Cup if it comes down to that, and they may even take action against the world governing bodies,” First said. “We’ll see.”