An announcement later this week should give us a clue as to the future of professional rugby in the United States. With an off season plagued by allegations, assumptions are the announcement will be about reworked contracts. Days before Christmas PRO Rugby owner, Doug Schoninger, sent a message to employees informing them all contracts were being terminated. Since then, the US Rugby Players Association (USRPA) has extended their umbrella to cover PRO, which is good because several players and coaches have alleged payments from their previous contracts went unfulfilled. Unless you’ve closely followed the saga, you might be wondering how things got to this point. A lot of details are left to mystery, but assumptions can be made.
The first ever season of professional rugby wrapped up in a thrilling match between the Ohio Aviators and the Denver Stampede. Ohio won the match, but Denver won the league on points. Expectations for season two were high. By most measures, the first season was a success. Several players were identified for national team camps, others earned overseas contracts, thousands of people from around the world tuned in to watch American rugby, and there was talk of expansion. Expansion was the key. Not only were new US cities expected, but at least one Canadian side as well.
The first sign of trouble came when talks between Rugby Canada and Doug Schoninger broke down. The issue at the center of the problem appeared to be sanctioning. Before leaving for the RFU, former USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville gave exclusive sanctioning to PRO for three years. Rumors say Doug Schoninger wanted a much lengthier commitment from Canada. With the Pro12 eyeing North American shores, a commitment like that was a non starter.
Anyone following the build up to the first season is aware that venues were a constant source of pain. Due to World Rugby regulations very few fields that met standards were available. Among other complaints, lack of a decent venue led to the San Francisco Rush shuttering their club. Before the second season had started, Canada was off the table and one current club was gone.
As previously mentioned, with days left in 2016 PRO effectively terminated all players and coaches contracts. That decision was made after a conversation about sanctioning with current USA Rugby CEO, Dan Payne. It’s impossible to say how much tension comes from the Pro12, or from the grass roots effort to professionalize rugby- the Austin Huns and the Major Rugby Championship. Even though USA Rugby hasn’t backed either venture, Doug Schoninger was not happy.
Back to the announcement. In order for Doug Schoninger to keep his end of the deal with the governing body, season two must happen. Right now, we can’t say how many teams with participate, or if any players are willing to trust Doug. It’s a sad state of affairs for a once promising league that appeared to wake up the sleeping giant a little bit more. As a silver lining, at least PRO showed there’s a market for rugby in the States. If season two doesn’t happen, it won’t be long before someone else tries.