Seven years ago, former England scrum-half and captain Nigel Melville was appointed as CEO and President of Rugby Operations at USA Rugby. Having previously served as Director of Rugby for London Wasps and Gloucester in the English Premiership, as well as Head of UK Promotions for Nike, Melville seemed like the ideal candidate to help wake the sleeping giant of the rugby world.
Now, in 2014, the face of rugby in the USA and across the world has changed dramatically. In this exclusive two-part Bleacher Report interview, we sit down with Melville to assess the state of the sport in America and what the future might hold.
In the first part our discussion, we asked USA Rugby's CEO about the growth of the game domestically and what needs to be done to unlock the game's potential in a nation that passionately loves its contact sports.
JH: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Nigel.
Well, it's been seven years on the job here in America; how far has the game of rugby advanced in that time?
NM: When I came to America seven years ago, I think my surprise was the lack of youth rugby. When people talked about youth rugby, they were referring to 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds. My first reaction was, wow, we have to sort this out. If you want sustainable and growing rugby in America, you had to have a vibrant youth game.
Our challenge was that whatever we did at the top end of the game, we still wouldn't have anything coming up from the bottom. So our youth-rugby efforts were a little like planting seeds, and now we are starting to reap the benefits of it.
JH: The normal role of a national union is to run a country's national teams and develop elite players. I suspect it couldn't have been an easy decision to throw large amounts of money at youth rugby as one of your first acts in charge.
NM: It wasn't. It wasn't a choice that was taken lightly. The easy thing would have been focus on the top end of the game, but we knew we needed to grow the game in the future. It's so encouraging now to meet kids at the age of 16 or 17 who started playing at the age of 10. They are much better players for having started earlier, and our national teams are better for it.
JH: Does rugby still have a job to do to win the confidence of American families and shed a bit of its old image?
NM: In America, many of our youth programs are not associated rugby clubs. As boy and girls get older, we really do have to win the confidence of mom's and dad's, because it's mom and dad that sign their child up to play.
I think for some parents that may have grown up with a particular impression of the game, we have some extra work to do. But when these parents see the excellent work being done and the great opportunity the sport gives their children, I think we are changing those impressions.
JH: We are less than two years away from the 2015 Rugby World Cup in London. Ten years ago, I would have thought that almost all the work of an organization like USA Rugby would have been driven by that event, but now there are literally dozens of events throughout the year, and the rugby calendar has expanded to include the Olympics. How has that changed things?
NM: It's huge, and that's good for the game. We have the women's World Cup this year. We have the Under-20 Championships this year, we have our men's World Cup qualifying, as well as our men's and women's Sevens teams playing throughout the year.
What we have seen is that men and women now play almost year-round, and the Sevens game has really added to its calendar. That increases the exposure for our game and raises the profile of rugby in America.
JH: The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio are drawing ever closer. What effect will the Olympics have on the growth of rugby in this country?
NM: I think the Olympics will certainly help raise the sport's profile, but what we are seeing is continuous growth in all of our national team properties. We recently had a sold-out stadium watch as the USA Eagles pushed Ireland to the limit in Texas.
We have a full-time residency program for our Sevens athletes. The sport is on television more, and we are drawing ever greater attention from corporate sponsors. Things are really moving.
JH: I probably shouldn't let the Sevens part of this conversation go without mentioning Carlin Isles. He's unquestionably an internet sensation. What does he mean to American rugby at the moment?
NM: While in some ways he is a perfect cross-over athlete who came from a non-team sport. At his base he's just an exceptionally gifted runner. Everyone who's watched him over the last year has to admit that he's really grown and is now playing some of his best rugby.
He understands his role in a very competitive media marketplace. He plays and performs under constant pressure from the media, and he keeps improving and delivering. He has handled the pressure incredibly well.
As a cross-over role model, he's an inspiration, and when the Detroit Lions came calling, he chose to continue to play rugby, and he's happy to tell you why. He loves the game.
JH: Last year, I sat down with Greg Peters, the CEO of Super Rugby. At that point, he was very high on the idea of getting the Super Rugby brand into the United States, and that expansion of Super Rugby franchises was a definite future possibility. What's going on with the possibility of professional rugby in America?
NM: Well professional rugby takes many forms. Much of this is out of our hands. In regards to Super Rugby, I presented to SANZAR when that competition was still called the Super 14. They went on to add a franchise in Melbourne.
I don't know how that helps break into new markets, I don't know how that improves your television exposure or your commerciality; however, it did allow each of the three SANZAR countries to have five teams each, so they were quite happy with that.
That's their choice.
I did believe that a Pacific Rim conference might be a way forward for them. A conference like that could include America, Canada, Japan and Argentina. I thought that was an option, but it seems to have been written off for now.
Every time I see smoke coming out of the SANZAR or Super Rugby meetings, I hear that expansion to the Americas is on their radar, but it's not something that seems to be on the table at the moment.
JH: Are groups like Super Rugby wasting their money by not taking advantage of the American market?
NM: I feel there's an opportunity for them, but they have to want to take that opportunity. They know we are here and that we are certainly interested and keen to listen. But time passes, and we move on to other things. If we can't get anywhere with Super Rugby, we'll be looking somewhere else.
JH: One of the things that seems to be an increasing standard in the rugby world is that if you want to have a professional competition, you need to have a domestic semi-pro developmental league to help develop elite players.
The Australians are just putting together one of their own that will run just beneath Super Rugby. Might we see something like that in the United States soon enough?
NM: We need a competition that is at the highest possible level within the confines of what is possible at the semi-professional level. Right now we have the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) which we like very much and which has served us well. The ARC has helped get some of our players overseas, but there's just not enough games.
I'd like to think we could improve our existing club competition. Our challenge is geography and money. We've been looking hard at how to create a domestic semi-pro league. Can we create it? I think we can, it's been getting closer every year, and I think you'll see such a competition in America, within the next five years.
JH: You mentioned geography and money. One of America's founding fathers Henry Adams once said: "There are grave doubts about the hugeness of the land, and whether one government can comprehend the whole."
When you think about how difficult it is to get agreement in American society on almost any issue, how hard has it been to create consensus with all the different groups within the U.S. rugby scene? There seem to be so many competing visions.
NM: That can be an issue. I think we are starting to get to the stage in the game's development here where various groups are starting to ask how they can make a profit off the game.
In the case of the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, we created a business arrangement with an events company who are interested in developing that property to make money. At the time it was offered to us, we didn't have the resources necessary to sustain the losses it took to develop that event to its current level.
That agreement turned out to be very good for the game. The exposure generated by the USA Sevens helps put the game in front of millions of people, and, so, we benefit from that and reduce our own risks. We can't be off doing absolutely everything.
Our responsibility at USA Rugby is to fund our national teams and their development. That is done, primarily, through the staging of large international fixtures for our senior men and certain other strategic events, like the recent IRB Women's Sevens tournament in Atlanta.
The growth of the game in America will not be the responsibility of only one party.
Here in the United States, we have many people being entrepreneurs, trying to do things with the game to try and develop it and monetize it. Those groups are often inspirational, can sometimes be frustrating, but are always passionately interested in growing and innovating the game, and you would expect that from America, wouldn't you?
JH: In regard to the USA Eagles, there was a moment recently where tens of thousands of USA Rugby fans were chanting down the haka in a match versus the New Zealand Maori. It was a stirring moment. Are more big international events on the way?
NM: First of all, our senior men's team is very exciting now. We have a group of players, probably for the first time in eight years, that is playing some great rugby, and most of them are playing regularly overseas.
I thought our games in November were indicative of what they are capable of. Our international fixture against Scotland this summer will be very exciting, as will the build-up to the World Cup, but first we have to beat Uruguay!
If you talk to the international players that visit here, the Maori, Ireland and so on, they love it. They think it's different. The stadiums are first-class, the weather is nice; they would play here more often if they could.
What we need now is to see if there is a big international global event that we can host, and the obvious one is the Rugby World Cup of Sevens in 2018.
The fifteens World Cup is a six-week enterprise, but the Sevens World Cup takes place over a single weekend and is definitely within our ability to host. So we are looking forward to discussing that further.
JH: Thanks so much for this, Nigel!
Look for the second part of this Bleacher Report exclusive interview with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville coming soon.
Jeff Hull is a contributor to Bleacher Report.