Exclusive: U.S. Professional Rugby Closer to Reality

Ted HardyContributor IJanuary 20, 2010

The dream of some form of professional rugby in the United States is nothing new. Not a year goes by that we don't hear some sort of rumor regarding the topic. The gambit has run from full blown professional leagues to merely professionalizing our national teams. As a community, we've been teased and tantalized only to end up let down. It's understandable that we have also become guarded and skeptical in the process.

Professional rugby is a hot topic for many reasons. At the base of the conversation, we just want success for rugby in America and one of the many benchmarks for sports in America is professionalization. Not to mention that having professional rugby will raise the level of play across the board from our national teams all the way down to youth ruggers dreaming of one day having the opportunity to play professional rugby.

Without a doubt, the biggest news in recent years regarding professional rugby in the United States has come from the camp of William Tatham Jr.

Amidst many groans from the American rugby community, Tatham acquired, from USA Rugby, exclusive sanctioning rights to own, operate and broadcast any form of professional Sevens competition in the United States. The concerns and arguments contained many valid points. With the imminent inclusion into the Olympics for Rugby Sevens, USA Rugby released control of one of their most valuable commodities being the chief concern.

Many fans were also surprisingly taken aback by the concept of tying rugby to gambling. A very confusing stance seeing as the last time I checked, every major sport (and even plenty of minor ones) from the pros to the NCAA were intimately tied to gambling.

While I had many concerns and reservations regarding the deal, I chose to take a cautiously optimistic approach to the deal. Given the many issues that USA Rugby has with running the various levels of rugby in the USA, I never believed that they would be the entity to professionalize rugby in the United States. Their focus should remain on governing and developing the game. Bringing a third party to the table was inevitable.

Many of the public's concerns were heightened when Tatham's launch of his $1 Million Las Vegas Challenge in 2008 was aborted and then the news coming out of his camp ran dry. As most others wrote Tatham off, I continued to keep tabs on the operation.

Something was very different about the group that he was putting together. Maybe it was the varied and successful sports backgrounds of his team or simply the fact that he had professional sports experience having been involved at the General Managing and Ownership levels of the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL and the NBA's Utah Jazz.

Something was certainly different compared to the many others that came before him touting their plans to take rugby to the next level in America without having the chops to make it happen.

For the last couple years, I have periodically checked in with Tatham and his group. While the plans were progressing, news was kept close to the chest.

The important thing to remember is that there are an incomprehensible amount of tasks that need accomplished to launch something of this magnitude. A process that could take years and they were slowly beginning to check off some of those marks.

Digging into various resources, I came to find Tatham and his group diligently acquiring various patents and copyrights to a bevy of names, logos, and even intellectual property. If this project was old news according to the rugby public, no one mentioned it to Tatham. The venture progressed and they did it under the radar of the rugby public which was probably the best place to do it.

With a firm belief that something was about to happen I contacted William Tatham Jr. with a series of questions.

Here is the unedited interview

Rugby America : Has the Olympic inclusion of Rugby Sevens helped move plans forward?

William Tatham Jr .: Yes, everything is proceeding as planned with the final piece of our long range puzzle in place.

I avoided the temptation to launch prematurely w/o certain tasks and goals attained.

With the internationally "one of a kind" Exclusive Sanction Rights we own to a major world sport, it is imperative that when we finally kick off, we do it right.

The Olympic endorsement of our sport represents a major link in our efforts to not only create a worldwide audience for our sport content, it provides an awesome launching pad for taking the sport directly to the American sports fan.

RA : If so, has there been any re-tinkering of the concept of using the smaller playing field to match what consumers will see at the Olympics?

Tatham : Yes and No.

Yes, we've decided to launch with a World Cup level rugby sevens "outdoor" game off a world teams for world distribution platform. No longer is the US market our primary focus, but instead we intend on creating the richest rugby sevens tournaments in history, played by the world's great teams.

As the host country, we'll enter up to four US teams in the 16 team field, comprised of players who survive our pre World Championship qualifying "rugby-football" training camp. With a mix of America's greatest rugby players and collegiate All American football players and ex NFL players competing for spots on the four rugby sevens teams.

As the Olympics so clearly proves, American players and fans love to beat the world, and the world loves to beat America. So we'll give world rugby fans four times the chance to be entertained....and get beat. Bottom line, fans deserve the best from day one, all they care about is winning, and we intend on giving US Rugby the best chance to do exactly that.

While doing so, we'll concurrently create a natural domestic interest via our reality show strategy whereby the sport is packaged as a backdrop to an otherwise demographically targeted audience.

No, our barbarian indoor enterprise will be launched in a phase two expansion on the back of our kick of our world class and equally lucrative "World Teams for World Distribution" platform.

RA : At first, I wasn't so keen on the "racetrack" rugby concept, but I have to admit, it has grown on me. Taking advantage of existing indoor playing facilities is a very good idea. With one in nearly every major city, there are plenty of choices for franchises.

Tatham : You are 100% right. Frankly, if we were focusing only on the domestic market, we would kick off with our initial indoor "Red Zone Rugby" product. But remember, whether indoor or outdoor, our number one objective will be to package "Race Track Rugby" for fans and bettors alike!!!

RA : As far as your licensing agreement with USA Rugby goes, in the event you do launch a professional Sevens league with the indoor, smaller-field concept. Does that keep others from creating a professional Sevens circuit on regulation fields?

Tatham: Our Exclusive Sanction Agreement covers professional rugby sevens, indoor and outdoor, played by from five to 11 players a side.

Having served on the USFL's legal committee in that league's fight against the powerful and monopolistic NFL, I fully understand the value of covering your bases from an exclusive rights, licensing and branding standpoint.

Thus, our primary objective was to not play a single match or sell a single ticket until such time we had achieved our long range goals, completed our multi distribution platform (web, satellite and broadcast), and secured each and every right possible (sport, film and television)...and we've done exactly that.

Its been an expensive and tedious campaign, but the sport is so great, the model so effective, and the opportunity so massive, that anything less would have been foolish.

RA : Will the USOC have any influence on your course of action?

Tatham : The USOC is and will be an awesome partner and we intend on doing everything in our power with our partner, USAR, to ensure American wins in 2016. Nothing less is acceptable.

We intend on winning day one on and off the field.

We're not interested in "gallant efforts", we want to win. Period.

RA : Any way it shakes out, Sevens appears to be the best bet for a professional level rugby competition in the United States. I honestly believe it's only a matter of time before it happens.

Tatham : And that time is now!!!

RA : I'm certain that the IRB will be shaking in their boots with the idea of another World Sevens competition. They've done a very good job raising the profile of Sevens in the world, but at the same time I think they hold back the reigns as they struggle with the fear that Sevens could outpace 15's in terms of popularity.

Tatham : From day one I've been 100% committed to working with, and within, IRB and USAR rules and regulations, and more important, within their plans for growing sevens worldwide. I'd be an absolute fool to do otherwise.

These great organizations have entrusted me with their awesome game in the world's greatest sports and commercial market, and I owe them no less as my partners, specifically Nigel Melville and Mike Miller, who have been totally awesome and supportive. As a result, we are on parallel paths...to make rugby sevens the "New Sport of the 20th Century!!!"

I have no interest in getting bogged down by the Machiavellian nonsense that has in the past held back US Rugby. USAR is now in good hands, and under awesome leadership of CEO Nigel Melville, supported by an equally professional and major league Board.

The truth is every dollar we spend, no matter how, is in effect the world's greatest (rugby) player development program ever undertaken...and USAR was smart enough to see this from day one.

And both USAR and the IRB were smart enough, and intuitive enough, to see this "non rugby" guy was going to do what no other "rugby guy" was able to do. Put rugby on the nations networks, in their major stadiums, and in the Las Vegas sports books.

The Olympics only discovered and endorsed what I knew and saw five years ago.

Rugby Sevens may just be the greatest team sport ever.

RA : Is there a launch date for the World competition?

Tatham : Lets just say if all goes as planned, it will be the biggest, wildest Halloween Party in the world!!

RA : In regards to how close you are to letting loose on the project, is it okay for me to share this knowledge with the viewers of my site? I truly appreciate your time and look forward to the promising future of rugby Sevens.

Tatham : My pleasure Ted, no one is more excited, more committed, and sees greater things for rugby sevens and American Rugby overall, than me, a "non rugby guy".

If nothing else, we're totally transparent, so go for it.

100% on the record.

That concludes the interview. I’ll be right here to follow any future developments.

Regardless of your feelings towards the deal with USA Rugby, Tatham, or the concept, know that this may very well be the opportunity that we have been looking forward to for years.