USA Rugby capped off their third-straight college 7s championships late last month, and made some progress.
The tournament was held in Greensboro, NC, and while the weather was very cold, which perhaps detracted somewhat from the experience, the venue, with a small but pleasing stadium, two other competition fields, and a good space for the athletes' tent village, was a step forward for the competition.
But there are still questions to answer when it comes to college 7s. Several well-regarded 7s teams did not participate in Greensboro. Some did so because they opted out in favor of the privately-run CRC in June (Cal and Virginia Tech would be two of those), others were taken aback by costs, while still more teams were concentrating on a fall 15s schedule (Penn State and Kutztown chief among them) and therefore passed on 7s.
Whether 7s should be the domain of fall and 15s in the spring, or whether the presence of the CRC, a large tournament with network TV coverage, should affect when college 7s should be played, remains an issue, and one that several have attempted to solve.
RUGBYMag.com caught up with DIA chief Kevin Battle to discuss the college 7s championships, and its place in the USA calendar.
RUGBYMag: How do you feel the event at Greensboro came off, and do you feel a pressure within USA Rugby to replicate or compete with the CRC as an event?
Battle: The Collegiate 7s National Championship event at Greensboro was a great event: great facilities, outstanding host organization, and fantastic teams. Everything went off without a hitch, and in the end, we had fantastic quarterfinals through to the finals for the Men's DI, DII and Women's Championships.
As far as pressure to replicate the CRC, well we need to put things into perspective. The CRC is an incredible event and they have set the bar high as far as event production and event management. However, it's an invitational tournament that is financed by private investors and the teams do not have to qualify.
At present time, USA Rugby's events are financed largely through membership dollars. This needs to change and soon. Our intent is to grow this event and would love to showcase the Collegiate 7s National Championship in similar fashion as to the CRC Invitational, but we cannot risk hundreds of thousands of dollars like the CRC has, as well as compromise the integrity of a National Championship.
RUGBYMag: Is the level of competition where you want it to be? Certainly the top teams are good, although they would argue they want to be better, but are the next 16 men’s teams and the bottom half of the women’s teams good enough to be in the competition?
Battle: Like any coach, we always want competition to improve. We had an extremely competitive field and our quarterfinal matchups were nothing short of awesome. I think teams at the bottom half of the field learned many a lessons, and I would expect many of them will come back even stronger. In the first year of the 7s National Championship, there where perhaps four teams with a realistic shot at winning the whole thing. This year, there were as many as eight and a few teams that would have been contenders chose not to participate. The standard of collegiate 7s has improved immensely in the past three years. It will only get better.
RUGBYMag: How did you feel the DII men’s competition went?
Battle: Let's just say I had my doubts about the DII 7s, given that nationwide DII men's elected to play 15s in the fall. However, these young men were impressive. I had the chance to meet many of the players and coaches, and was treated to some a fantastic display of rugby, athleticism and teamwork. I am extremely excited about the future growth and quality of the Men's DII 7s Championships.
RUGBYMag: Is 24 teams for the men a good number? The issue with it seems to be that with six pools of 4, only two second-place teams make it to the Cup Quarterfinals. In addition, the format encourages teams to run up the score, rather than, say, run in the subs when you’re winning comfortably.
Battle: Ultimately, this decision will be made by the Men's Collegiate Competition Committee, to which I am a part of. In my personal opinion, I see both pluses and minuses to the 24-team format. Twenty-four teams is a lot of teams, but this is a National Championship after all , and we need to have nationwide representation. I had the pleasure of conversing with James Fonda, coach of San Jose St. and this is the first time in over 40-plus years they have qualified for a National Championship event in rugby. This has created a buzz with the San Jose State rugby alumni, administration and student body. Could this be the impetus for greater things to come from another collegiate rugby program?
Sevens is a great equalizer, where teams with less resources can still earn their way to compete and beat the bigger, more established programs. Twenty-four teams allows for this to happen. On the flip side, yes, you do end up with some lopsided scoring and some great teams are left out of the quarterfinals. At the end of the day, I do believe the top eight teams made the Cup Quarterfinals.
RUGBYMag: Compare the format to the CRC, which in 2013 expanded to 20 teams. That format allows three of the five 2nd-place teams to make the quarterfinals.
Battle: This can also work. I think it would be even better if they had the best 20 teams who earned their way there through a combination of objective and subjective criteria. To sell this as anything other than a great invitational tournament is disingenuous at best.
RUGBYMag: By saying that, you imply you had the best 24 teams in the country in Greensboro. You did have most of them, but certainly not all. The CRC has rightly come under criticism for the competitive level of some of the teams involved, but if trying to grow the game and exposing teams to a national competition and arena, and creating a buzz on campus is a good-enough reason for USA Rugby to invited 24 teams, including some poor ones, isn't it a good enough reason for the CRC?
Battle: I am not implying the best 24 teams in the country were in Greensboro. Cal, UCLA, BYU, Kutztown, Army, Penn State, Delaware and Utah would have certainly enhanced the competition. Each have their reasons for not attending. Some for discipline, some for financial, and some for other reasons. What I am saying is that each of our 24 Division I teams earned their way there through a competitive qualification process. There were no freebies based on locale or brand recognition. The CRCI actually denies entry to many of our nation's best teams, and grants a free pass to some inferior teams based on a marketing theory.
RUGBYMag: Is the fall the right time for the 7s championships? At present we have some college leagues playing in the fall, some not, and of those that play in the fall, they concentrate on 7s, while other regions look to the fall as their main 15s competitive time.
Battle: Given the size and geographic diversity of this country, I'm not sure there is a right time to play rugby. Inclement weather and competition with other seasonal sports means that each region has its own unique challenges with seasonality. I have spoken with many network executives, and they simply are not interested in broadcasting 15s in the fall. NFL, College Football, as well as local and regional high school football own that space.
RUGBYMag: Does it seem as if USA Rugby reacted in 2011 to get a national 7s championship going, rather than planned out exactly what would be best? They decided to play a championship in the fall, just before Thanksgiving. Given that decision, putting the event in a warm-weather state seems to make sense, but the weather rarely does what we want it to do, and it’s still almost winter. In addition, the scheduling issues around the country seem to be exacerbated by having 15s in the fall, 7s in the fall, 15s in the winter and spring, 7s in the spring.
Battle: The Men's Collegiate Competition's committee was formed in January of 2011 and was prioritized with the specific task of creating the Collegiate 7s Championship. There was a tremendous sense of urgency placed on the creation of the event within the calendar year. Timing, in an already crowded calendar was and always will be an issue.
Location is just as challenging, as there are many variables that need to be considered. We need to find the appropriate size stadium that can accommodate television production needs, as well as provide players and fans the amenities they deserve. We need to have at least two additional competition fields within close proximity to the stadium. We need to have adequate warm-up space for at least six teams at a time, as well as a place for an athlete village for 48 teams and 700 athletes. Because of the time of year, we are limited to the southern or western regions to give us the best chance of predictable weather. Greensboro, albeit a bit cold, met all of these requirements and provided an excellent host organization with tremendous volunteer support.
RUGBYMag: What would you like to see for the college 7s championships?
Battle: Imagine the CRC where all of the teams are there based on merit, and have earned their way through a transparent qualification process. How awesome would this be? I would love to see the powers that be work together to provided this for the American public. A National Championship, a high-quality, high-visibility production that celebrates our best student-athletes and teams, live on NBC. What can we do to make this happen? We must make this happen.
RUGBYMag: How much of the onus is on USA Rugby to put aside that sense of urgency you mentioned in creating their own college 7s competition to rival the CRC, and instead work with United World Sports to leverage what they have created?
Battle: Unfortunately that is not a questions I am qualified to answer. What I do know is this, if the powers that be on both sides could work together and combine the best attributes of both tournaments, we all would all benefit immensely. The best teams competing on the biggest stage in the best venue, packed with supportive fans, all live on NBC. What a victory this would be for rugby in this country.