- PRO Rugby owner could abandon development and buy foreign talent
- Says: ‘Players, coaches, refs, the whole ecosystem, that will change’
Plans to place Pro12 teams in the US and Canada could kill PRO Rugby as a league that develops American players, according to the owner of the US league, and prompt instead the buying up of talent from established rugby countries.
Doug Schoninger, a former bond trader based in New York, operates PRO Rugby under a sanctioning agreement with USA Rugby and World Rugby that runs until 2019. He offered the same response to reports of French club Toulon planning a team in Miami, and of Super Rugby considering a North American franchise.
PRO Rugby ran this year from April to July, a season which Schoninger said proved the competition was “robust, strong and healthy”. USA Rugby, he said, believes his league and teams run by foreign interests in other months need not be mutually exclusive.
The national body’s chief executive, Dan Payne, praised PRO Rugby and told the Guardian he was focused on “how to grow the awareness and participation of the game”.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper has said the sport’s governing body would support “any competitions including US-based sides”.
Schoninger said: “[USA Rugby and the Pro12] don’t understand why something that’s offseason to me, matters to me. What we understand is that we have the data now, and we’re young.”
The prospect of another professional competition establishing a US presence, he said, regardless of the outcome of any such talks, was damaging to his league’s chances of success. His exclusive sanctioning agreement, he said, provides for commercial encouragement by USA Rugby and World Rugby.
He said: “This is a distraction I don’t need as I’m trying to build this, which is hard enough anyway in an amateur environment, trying to do something which is professional … the takeaway is that we are developmental, players, coaches, refs, the whole ecosystem. That will change, unfortunately.
“Unfortunately what I’m going to have to do if [the Pro12 plan] continues is I’m going to have to be a better version of them, not a better version of me … We all know how to get a good rugby competition in this world. You pull out a big chequebook. And that’s easy.
“That was never my mandate … but if I have to shift my style because of this threat, I don’t want to do it but I guess I’ll have to do it, and the losers will be those people who would benefit from rugby developing in America, by Americans. And that’s super bad.”
The five centrally owned PRO Rugby teams play in Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Obetz, Ohio. Expansion in Canada and the US east coast is planned. To avoid any clash with the NFL, its first season ran from spring to summer: 151 American players were employed, 101 full-time and 50 part-time. There were 17 international players, six of whom were Canadian. Match officials were American and head coaches American or US-based.
The Pro12 includes teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy and is less financially powerful than England’s Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 in France. Its 2016-17 season kicks off this weekend and runs to May. American and Canadian players include Cam Dolan and Blaine Scully at the Cardiff Blues, Jeff Hassler at the Ospreys and DTH Van der Merwe at the Scarlets.
Pro12 managing director Martin Anayi recently said exploratory talks had taken place with the US and Canada unions and potential investors. Houston and Vancouver have emerged as favoured cities.
“We have got to do something about our revenues,” Anayi, who was not able to comment for this article, told the BBC. “But we don’t think we have to chase after a model that is in our minds unsustainable.”
Schoninger said Pro12 expansion to North America, particularly to Texas and British Columbia in the far west, would be precisely that.
“My new favourite term is ‘positive fantasisation’,” he said. “They’re fantasising at my expense [which is] at the expense of rugby development in America. That’s the sad part.”
Contacted by the Guardian, Gosper pointed to comments he made to the BBC: World Rugby would be “supportive of any competitions including US-based sides”, he said, as “the US market is a very important market for rugby. It’s a high-growth market, it’s the fastest-growing team sport in the USA.”
Gosper added: “Anything that keeps and inspires some homegrown US players can only be good for the development of that sport.”
Pro12 and Toulon’s plans would reportedly involve the use of players from academies or the fringes of senior squads. Neither has counted out the employment of American or Canadian players.
Schoninger said he was well aware that a reliance on foreign talent in domestic leagues can damage the performance of national teams and cited the example of France, where international results have suffered as Top 14 clubs increasingly buy up players from southern-hemisphere countries. Of USA coach John Mitchell’s current 50-man elite training squad, 15 played PRO Rugby in year one.
Schoninger signed his sanctioning agreement in April 2015, with then USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville. Exhibition games such as that between London Irish and Saracens staged by the Premiership in New Jersey in March 2016 are exempt from the deal. Two more such games are planned.
Payne took over at USA Rugby when Melville joined the RFU in London in June. In an email, he told the Guardian: “My daily mission and focus is centered around how to grow the awareness and participation of the game in our country. It absolutely consumes and drives all I do.
“The two largest contributing factors to that end in our country this year have been the Olympics and PRO Rugby completing the first full season.”