The latest chip to fall in college rugby’s seasonality discussion is the Atlantic Coast Rugby League moving its 15s season to the fall and 7s season to the spring beginning in 2013/2014. And there are more possible changes being batted around right now.
The ACRL made the move for a few reasons. Weather was one for some teams, as the conference dealt with multiple postponements this spring, though ACRL commissioner Pat Kane insists the change is not a knee-jerk reaction to what has been an uncharacteristically wintry spring in the Southeast. The switch has actually been on the table since October, he said.
ACRL Teams also found it difficult to manage retention and recruitment during a fall 7s season. Playing 15s in the fall eliminates having to schedule around spring break, too. And potential commercial sponsors and broadcasters of the ACRL’s 7s series told the conference they were more apt to support something in the spring.
The move is significant because it marks the first time a DI conference geographically positioned to play spring 15s has chosen not to. The ACRL could have continued playing a fall 7s season that built toward USA Rugby’s 7s National Championships and a spring 15s season that climaxed with an automatic berth into USA Rugby’s 15s playoffs.
Instead, the ACRL has swapped seasons, and there’s no guarantee its champions will participate in USA Rugby’s 15s playoffs or 7s Championships. The conference will, however, host a one-off 7s tournament in the fall so its champion will have the choice whether or not to attend 7s Nationals. How that affects the ACRL champion's bid to the USA 7s CRC in the spring remains to be seen.
Another postseason option for the ACRL is an independent fall championship being talked about right now. Several conferences, like the Big Ten, Ivy, MAC, Empire, Heart of America and ACRL, are discussing the possibility of staging a championship in the fall. The format and the participants of the potential postseason are undecided, but Kane admits part of the reason for the ACRL’s decision is to align itself with like conferences.
“We recognized that it’s an impossibility for a large portion of the country, including a large portion that is geographically contiguous to our conference’s geographic footprint, to play 15s in the spring,” said Kane.
“Some of the conferences that we most closely identify with, like the Ivy league and Big Ten, play fall 15s. That was something that we took into consideration, because we wanted to be on the same timetable as those conferences.”
Michigan coach and former USA Rugby employee Matt Trenary is at the center of the discussions about the proposed fall league.
“There’s a lot to be finalized, even as much as who’s playing in it, but there’s a critical mass to make it happen,” he said, “and it’s really that these teams feel it’s better for the athletes this way.
“Right now it turns into an 8-month season. You start right away in August and get hard core into your season. And then you have to stop and take a couple of months off, and then you’re right back training in January and you’re going through April. It just seems to be too long.
“All the teams in the Big Ten saw a dip in their numbers in the spring. It’s hard to design a training regimen around that. And some guys don’t want to play all those months. They can play out all their rugby in the fall, and then some of them want to break off. Let them have a break, and then you have the dedicated guys continuing on to play 7s. That’s our opinion, and I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with that, but thinking back to when I was a player, I would have loved that.”
This group of conferences isn’t the only contingent talking about moving its championship season to the fall. There’s a push to move the women’s national championships to the fall and a separate push to move the DII championships.
These proposed movements have been the center of discussions among members of USA Rugby’s College Management Council (CMC). And the discussions haven’t all been amicable. In fact, there was an attempt to vote a few members of the College Management Council, who come from cold-weather regions and are thought to be pro-fall 15s, off of the CMC. Their names were even taken off USA Rugby’s website for a time. But Collegiate Director Rich Cortez stepped in and cooled tempers, effectively rendering the CMC unchanged.
There’s a lot at stake in these seasonality discussions. USA Rugby is trying to create money-making events out of things like the DI-A Championship Game and the 7s National Championships. And if the creation of independent championship events results in less teams, including brand-name teams, competing in USA Rugby’s marquee events, it makes those events harder to market and find sponsors for. It devalues USA Rugby’s National Championships and the overall return on investment for members.
For instance, it’s not likely the Big Ten will host a 7s tournament this fall or send a representative to 7s Nationals.
“That was a choice laid out – should we try and go fit into the USA Rugby 7s tournament?” said Trenary. “But the answer was no. We’d love to play in it, but it just doesn’t really fit. It’s not trying to be some anti-USA Rugby thing at all. It’s just not fitting. It just doesn’t work. If it was in the spring, we’d love to play into it.”
Cortez has proven to be a calming voice in the seasonality discussions so far.
“We’re a membership organization. We want to do what’s best for our members,” he said. “I haven’t been on the job that long, but I fully understand the concerns that the cold weather teams face and I understand all of the arguments, some of which are valid, and some of which are invalid. But if they want to have a regional championship in the fall, I personally am not opposed to that.”
For now, some of these independent championships are playing ball with USA Rugby, letting the CMC look over their plans and hopefully give them the thumbs up. But if the decisions don’t fall their way, will they decide to progress without USA Rugby’s blessing?
“One size doesn’t fit all, but we have to get away from this habit of beating each other up or taking our ball and going home if we can’t convince the majority,” said Cortez. “But I think these ideas have been good for discussion. I also recognize that as we grow and move into conferences and gain our independence more and more in terms what we can actually accomplish, there are a lot of growing pains.”