“This is the first time that rugby has made a huge push for championship status … Once we get this out there, people are going to jump on it."

Big thanks to my Sports Info buddy for life, Nick the Quick, for this article from The NCAA News

Rugby advocates work to emerge from scrummage
July 02, 2007
By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
The NCAA News

When the emerging-sports list was created in 1994, rugby was not included. Through tireless efforts by coaches and rugby advocates, the sport was added to the list in 2002, when nearly 350 collegiate women’s clubs teams were active.

Now, leaders in the sport are preparing to grow it enough to make the next step — to varsity status and an eventual NCAA championship.

Last year, USA Rugby hired Rebecca Carlson, a former varsity rugby player at Eastern Illinois University, to help grow the sport, with the end goal of an NCAA championship.

“This is the first time that rugby has made a huge push for championship status,” Carlson said. “Once we get this out there, people are going to jump on it.”

In the last year, Carlson has been showing up at conference offices and attending events such as national conventions for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, and developing relationships with athletics directors across the country. She said she can provide information on budget and other statistics, as well as a media packet and informational DVD.

Since Carlson began working with USA Rugby’s Kristin Richeimer, director of membership relations, three schools across all three divisions have added rugby as a varsity sport, bringing the total number of varsity teams to four.

Richeimer said having rugby as an emerging sport allows teams to play a mixed varsity and club schedule that helps foster growth and movement toward all-varsity competition.

Carlson said she often encounters officials who know next to nothing about the sport, or worse, have a negative image of it.

“Rugby has so much of a stigma attached to it — every time I tell people that I played rugby, they say I must break a lot of bones or ask if we drank a lot,” she said. “This is not the entire culture of the sport. I just have to let people know that.”

Another challenge is that some within the rugby community don’t want to be associated with being varsity or having an NCAA championship, citing concerns about taking the passion out of the game. Carlson disputes that perception, arguing that rugby is no different from any other sport — participants are usually having the time of their lives.

“Ask a female basketball player at the University of Connecticut if she’s having a good time, if she would trade her experience,” she said. “Once you do explain the benefits, a lot of people are like, yeah, I’m in. There just haven’t been a lot of people there to dispel the rumors before. And change is scary for people.”

Coaches in the most recently created NCAA championships agree that being listed as an emerging sport gave them a major advantage because the path to the championship was easier. Institutions were more likely to add a sport if it counted toward minimum requirements for financial aid and sport sponsorships.

Carin Crawford, women’s water polo coach at San Diego State University, said her sport experienced phenomenal growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely as a result of the NCAA’s identification of women’s water polo as an emerging sport.

“It was the key for a lot of these institutions deciding to add it as a sport. It was the endorsement many university administrators needed to be convinced that women’s water polo belonged as an NCAA championship sport,” she said.

Many coaches and officials in sports that have made the jump from emerging sport to championship status say rugby is already ahead of the game by hiring someone to specifically focus on growing the sport — someone to be professional and follow the right steps to reach the end goal.

Laura Halldo­rson, women’s ice hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said working together and staying connected is also important.
“You need to have dedicated, hard-working individuals working together who are active and who will help,” she said.

Many coaches and administrators also recommended being organized and making it as easy as possible for athletics directors to add the sport.

Lisa Glenn, women’s rowing coach at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said some proponents for sports believe the NCAA will deliver many benefits, like creating connections between schools and a structure for a national championship — but it means more if those within the sport build those aspects for themselves. That means actively creating competition schedules and an officiating bureau.

“We would make sure it was obstacle-free to add the sport,” said Dan Sharadin, commissioner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association. “If you can reduce the hurdles for an athletics administrator, especially in ‘fringe’ sports, it will help.”

Carlson is already taking the approach Crawford recommended — just getting out and meeting athletics directors, developing relationships and dedicating hours of hard work to the proposition.

“It’s the kind of work that doesn’t necessarily give you immediate results, but it helps to plant the seed for growth and the idea that the sport is legitimate and worthy of varsity status,” she said.

For now, Carlson is focusing on education, particularly of ADs and other decision-makers.

“They have every right in the world to ask questions and to create obstacles for you because it’s an investment,” she said. “I do believe that even if they put up these obstacles, if we give them the right information and provide the right pitch, it’s going to go smoothly.”

And did you see these two paragraphs? They are directed at most of us …

Another challenge is that some within the rugby community don’t want to be associated with being varsity or having an NCAA championship, citing concerns about taking the passion out of the game. Carlson disputes that perception, arguing that rugby is no different from any other sport — participants are usually having the time of their lives.

“Ask a female basketball player at the University of Connecticut if she’s having a good time, if she would trade her experience,” she said. “Once you do explain the benefits, a lot of people are like, yeah, I’m in. There just haven’t been a lot of people there to dispel the rumors before. And change is scary for people.”

What do you think? Are we afraid of change? I say yes … and she’s right. Lots of rumors to dispel.

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11 Comments

Filed under articles, NCAA, varsity rugby

11 responses to ““This is the first time that rugby has made a huge push for championship status … Once we get this out there, people are going to jump on it."

  1. Em

    I would have killed to have played varsity. Probably most of the rest of my team would have quit if that had happened. Attitudes, yes. I agree.

  2. AOF

    …and I don’t think that it helps that Carlson is an EIU grad, since many in the rugby community fear “varisty” rugby would look like what has been done at EIU. Their collegerugbyamerica site doesn’t help sell “NCAA rugby” to the rest of the women’s rugby community.

  3. Emily

    I think its important to remember the athletics departments have a lot of disgression in creating their program, and none of the others look like EIUs…

  4. K-Train

    I have two problems.

    First of all, unlike a lot of emerging sports, we have two perfectly good national championships and we’re probably working towards an official DIII national championship in a few years. We have plenty of people playing, on organized teams, all over the country. Women’s Ice Hockey is not the same beast nor is water polo, compared to rugby.

    Neither NCAA championships or varsity status brings guaranteed prestige.

    Second issue…that no one seems to understand…being varsity does not magically add a football team sized budget for the rugby program in question. If anything it seems like teams going varsity means there’s one more coach out there who is making ok money coaching rugby. It doesn’t build match quality pitches necessarily.

    Money does that sort of thing…ask Penn State’s well organized,well looked after, amazingly coached, very well funded programs how much they care about that little varsity or NCAA tag. I think they care more about their new rugby facility, all those DI trophies they have and the list of alumni that have played for the eagles.

  5. Anonymous

    First off, I agree with aof about the whole EIU/collegerugbyamerica (which has already been hashed on blogs).

    Second, k-train’s point about money not magically appearing is good too. Unfortunately, there are a lot of club teams that barely have the money to function – where the players have expensive dues, pay for their own hotels, travel (lots of gas $), etc. The benefits beyond the money is where it’s at: the academic study centers with tutors, the top notch weight rooms, the athletic trainers, etc.

    -J

  6. Em

    Re: money, J has a point. I don’t think any club is expecting to be rolling in dough if they go varsity. But having a hired, paid coach, access to trainers, guaranteed practice times and facilities (even if those facilities are not top notch), the paid travel–that kind of infrastructure is what a lot of teams need. K has a point that we already have a championship, but in my opinion, without the infrastructure, the championship means little. I would also disagree with her assessment that most teams are organized. Many teams have no coaches, or only intermittent coaching. Many teams have no official pitch. Most teams struggle for consistent numbers.

    You have a handful of clubs that have managed to excel, and an enormous number of lower tier clubs that could use the boost varsity status gives and finally HAVE a steady coach and finally HAVE a practice field that not a common campus quad, and so on. Varsity clubs will not have TONS of money…but they WILL have more than the vast majority of college club teams do at present. That infrastructure is what is ultimately needed to grow the college-level game.

  7. K-Train

    Em I didn’t mean that all club rugby teams were organized. I meant that within the club structure it’s possible to be well a organized, well funded sports organization.

    Being varsity does not mean you’ll automatically get a pitch either. I played on West Chester’s pitch twice last fall and it was underwhelming. Temple, La Salle, Drexel or UPenn could go varsity and because of being city schools they would probably have to accept playing on turf fields or keep playing where everyone else.

    Re: Coaching, to me this is chicken and the egg scenario. How does a team even get in the position where they can varsity without a steady coach? Or at least an administrator of some kind with a little bit vision? If a DIII or DIV team is becoming a varsity sport without ever having a coach I question the decision in the first place. You are essentially starting from scratch. And why would you want to elevate such a sport as a university…probably just to balance out football for Title IX reasons.

    Plus, the attraction of being able to coach for money doesn’t necessarily bring out the best coaches…just the ambitious ones.

    I do agree about the non-money perks. Access to trainers and treatment are very important. Ditto for getting access to varsity weight rooms. Most likely you’ll probably be the lowest man on the totem pole in these situations if the schools athletic facilities are already heavily or overused.

    Again…to me it seems like you only get as far as the money and the school’s actual commitment level.

  8. Anonymous

    K-Train,

    As of the last board meeting there has been no mention of adding any DIII National Championships. In fact, all discussions regarding the number of championships are directed at reducing. Men’s DII and DIII, and collegiate DII, Boy’s HS Nationals, are all vulnerable. Adding additional championships, esp. DIII might happen unofficially, but not officially anytime in the near future.

    AV

  9. So Cal Rugger

    My biggest fear with increasing “varsityization” of rugby is that it will harm the “come one come all” attitude that historically has made rugby a great sport. What’s more, I doubt that the players in current varsity sports get the leadership opportunities available to the college rugger. Yes, there are some real screwups out there, but when students take the lead in running a team and making it happen (not just playing in it), I think it does a lot more for them in the long run than having access to the varsity weight room and a few dollars for travelling.

    Sacrificing these things for the sake of an improved product is not worth it.

    The comment preceding mine also points out a relating and disturbing trend towards elitism in rugby in this country. I can’t understand the reason for elimination of the lower level national championships. If money is part of the reason, I am highly skeptical that the marginal cost of holding additional championships is a serious problem. And don’t those players in the lower divisions (who are more numerous than those at higher levels) pay their CIPP dues as well?

    Diminishing the importance of grass roots participation relative to our elite (such as it is) will prove to be a blow to our sport’s growth. In my own union, we see that so much is set up to serve the top clubs…and yet these are the ones who do the least for the union.

  10. CK

    American’s team’s been around for about 11 years, and right now we’re one of the top club programs at AU. We’ve got great ambitions for the growth of our team – our board has been working with the club sports office for increased field access and equipment storage, and I’d like to think that the visibility and success of our program has been a factor in the university’s recent decision to increase the office’s total budget.

    On the one hand, field access, equipment storage, and money would be easier or maybe unnecessary to fight for if we had varsity status. Not to mention that holy grail of getting access to a trainer.

    But on the other hand, very few if any of us want the constraints that come with being a varsity team. As a club side, we can choose whether our focus will be on increasing our competitiveness or just having fun playing an amazing game, and individual members can join with the knowledge that rugby’s a flexible commitment. Many of our best (and most dedicated) players participate in multiple activities or work jobs or just plain don’t want the 24/7 commitment that comes with playing for a varsity team.

    For the AUWRFC, moving to varsity status would effectively change the character of the team. Perhaps this wouldn’t objectively be a bad thing, but I would personally be disappointed if the club attitude of self-determination and free-will participation were lost to that varsity designation.

  11. Nursedude

    I think making rugby a varsity sport is a two edged sword. I think it will give at least a budget to a rugby team, not a whole lot of money, but something. That said, if it becomes a varsity sport, it might disuade some potential players from playing who may not think they are good enough-particularly a person who is a neophyte to the game.

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