The 55-year-old ex-England rugby captain leaves his position as CEO of USA Rugby at the end of June to take up the role of Director of Professional Rugby for the Rugby Football Union (RFU). This is an opportune moment for the former international scrum-half to look back on his 9½ years in the US.
On Nigel’s arrival in Boulder, Colorado in January 2007, rugby in the US had a low profile. As he remembers, “When I first came here it wasn’t really doing anything and it wasn’t really going anywhere.”
Despite a shaky start, Nigel set about establishing a comprehensive structure for grassroots level rugby in the US. “One thing we did do was start the programmes as quickly as we could,” he explains. “We had to get the ball in the hands of as many kids as possible to be able to grow something for the future and create some sustainability.”
Within three years Nigel saw nearly two million American children participate in ‘Rookie Rugby’. From this point on, he says you could, “see the pathway develop – it brings growth in schools, in colleges and eventually in clubs.”
The numbers speak for themselves. “When I came to the post in 2007 there were 50,000 registered rugby players,” Nigel says. “Now there are 115,000.” The US has certainly experienced a recent spike of interest in the sport, traditionally played only by ex-pats. 900 colleges now play rugby with conference leagues running into national championships, and provide an increasing pool of talent to help progress USA Rugby’s programme.
The potential of USA Rugby is apparent as it quietly knocks on the doors of collegiate-level athletes. Resources for the national programme are limited and Nigel knows the value of the people working within the sport. “It’s mainly down to the personnel we have working at USA Rugby. If you can get the right athletes with the right coaches, you can really make progress.”
This is evident with the development of players such as Carlin Isles, touted as the world’s quickest rugby player, who are drawing eyes to the US game. If USA Rugby can continue to tap into the vast resources colleges provide for their athletes, the sky’s the limit.
The progress already made by Nigel and his team will be boosted by the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the 2016 Olympic Games – and he isn’t worried about the pressure of competing as reigning Olympic champions! “It’s been a while,” he laughs. The last Olympic rugby tournament (which was won by USA Rugby) was in 1924. “Regardless,” he continues, “it’s great for the game. Major broadcasters will be showing a lot of the rugby, especially if we do well. Americans like winners!”
Nigel recognises the hunger for sport in the US and the potential commercial opportunities for rugby in the American market. In 2014, he was responsible for organising an international rugby union match between the USA Eagles and the New Zealand All Blacks at Soldier Field, a stadium better known for housing NFL team the Chicago Bears. “62,000 people came to watch,” Nigel recalls. Enough to make the sports market pay attention.
“Making money from the game in the US is very limited at the moment. It’s mostly amateur, the pro game is just starting,” Nigel explains. “But the bottom line is that it’s growing… it won’t go backwards now, it’ll get bigger and bigger.” He believes that opportunities in a growing market are discovered through networking, a reality that can be realised at events such as the World Rugby ConfEx.
“The opportunity to network at the ConfEx is really important because I can meet people from all over the world who I wouldn’t normally see. It’s worth it just to get together with people,” he continues, “and the exhibition is also valuable because it’s a good way to hear new ideas and get ahead on what’s new in the industry.”
Moving back to the UK, Nigel feels that his time in America will help him push the RFU forward when he takes up his new post. “You can take things from each individual sport, the way they’re structured and what goes on behind the scenes. Sports like American football, basketball, baseball, track and field and how they thrive at the collegiate level – they will all help me move forward. I’m really looking forward to a new challenge.”
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