Rugby advocates work to emerge from scrummage
By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
The NCAA News
When the emerging-sports list was created in 1994, rugby was not included. Through tireless efforts by coaches and rugby advocates, the sport was added to the list in 2002, when nearly 350 collegiate women’s clubs teams were active.
Now, leaders in the sport are preparing to grow it enough to make the next step — to varsity status and an eventual NCAA championship.
Last year, USA Rugby hired Rebecca Carlson, a former varsity rugby player at Eastern Illinois University, to help grow the sport, with the end goal of an NCAA championship.
“This is the first time that rugby has made a huge push for championship status,” Carlson said. “Once we get this out there, people are going to jump on it.”
In the last year, Carlson has been showing up at conference offices and attending events such as national conventions for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, and developing relationships with athletics directors across the country. She said she can provide information on budget and other statistics, as well as a media packet and informational DVD.
Since Carlson began working with USA Rugby’s Kristin Richeimer, director of membership relations, three schools across all three divisions have added rugby as a varsity sport, bringing the total number of varsity teams to four.
Richeimer said having rugby as an emerging sport allows teams to play a mixed varsity and club schedule that helps foster growth and movement toward all-varsity competition.
Carlson said she often encounters officials who know next to nothing about the sport, or worse, have a negative image of it.
“Rugby has so much of a stigma attached to it — every time I tell people that I played rugby, they say I must break a lot of bones or ask if we drank a lot,” she said. “This is not the entire culture of the sport. I just have to let people know that.”
Another challenge is that some within the rugby community don’t want to be associated with being varsity or having an NCAA championship, citing concerns about taking the passion out of the game. Carlson disputes that perception, arguing that rugby is no different from any other sport — participants are usually having the time of their lives.
“Ask a female basketball player at the University of Connecticut if she’s having a good time, if she would trade her experience,” she said. “Once you do explain the benefits, a lot of people are like, yeah, I’m in. There just haven’t been a lot of people there to dispel the rumors before. And change is scary for people.”
Coaches in the most recently created NCAA championships agree that being listed as an emerging sport gave them a major advantage because the path to the championship was easier. Institutions were more likely to add a sport if it counted toward minimum requirements for financial aid and sport sponsorships.
Carin Crawford, women’s water polo coach at San Diego State University, said her sport experienced phenomenal growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s, largely as a result of the NCAA’s identification of women’s water polo as an emerging sport.
“It was the key for a lot of these institutions deciding to add it as a sport. It was the endorsement many university administrators needed to be convinced that women’s water polo belonged as an NCAA championship sport,” she said.
Many coaches and officials in sports that have made the jump from emerging sport to championship status say rugby is already ahead of the game by hiring someone to specifically focus on growing the sport — someone to be professional and follow the right steps to reach the end goal.
Laura Halldorson, women’s ice hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said working together and staying connected is also important.
“You need to have dedicated, hard-working individuals working together who are active and who will help,” she said.
Many coaches and administrators also recommended being organized and making it as easy as possible for athletics directors to add the sport.
Lisa Glenn, women’s rowing coach at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said some proponents for sports believe the NCAA will deliver many benefits, like creating connections between schools and a structure for a national championship — but it means more if those within the sport build those aspects for themselves. That means actively creating competition schedules and an officiating bureau.
“We would make sure it was obstacle-free to add the sport,” said Dan Sharadin, commissioner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association. “If you can reduce the hurdles for an athletics administrator, especially in ‘fringe’ sports, it will help.”
Carlson is already taking the approach Crawford recommended — just getting out and meeting athletics directors, developing relationships and dedicating hours of hard work to the proposition.
“It’s the kind of work that doesn’t necessarily give you immediate results, but it helps to plant the seed for growth and the idea that the sport is legitimate and worthy of varsity status,” she said.
For now, Carlson is focusing on education, particularly of ADs and other decision-makers.
“They have every right in the world to ask questions and to create obstacles for you because it’s an investment,” she said. “I do believe that even if they put up these obstacles, if we give them the right information and provide the right pitch, it’s going to go smoothly.”