In the aftermath of the United States national rugby team’s historic match against the New Zealand “All Blacks” on November 1st, many are hoping that the sport’s growing visibility (and televisibility) in North America can be leveraged into the creation of a domestic professional league. Indeed, the match attracted decent ratings and sold out Soldier Field, the home of the Chicago Bears NFL franchise. From the viewpoint of science and technology studies, a sports league is an organizational technology whose politics are recognizable through how its design helps determine who will benefit, who will own what, and who has the power to make important decisions. An American professional rugby league is an emerging technology, one whose politics remains malleable. Its politically-relevant design features are still easily alterable. Rugby fans, players and coaches ought to be concerned that the proposed National Rugby Football League (NRFL) will look and function too much like the National Football League or other American professional sports leagues. At this early stage, it is still feasible to steer the effort toward community control, rather than let it become a lucrative game run by billionaires privately gaining from millions in public subsidy and dominated by an overarching concern for television ratings rather than home-grown support.
For those unfamiliar with it, rugby is a sport that shares some similarities with and predates American Football but is notable for the lack of pads, forward passing, and blocking. Rugby is one of the top sports in countries like the United Kingdom, France, Argentina, South Africa and Japan, as well as in most nations throughout Oceania. The United States remains very much a second-tier rugby nation, similar to what was the case for soccer a decade or so ago. The sport does have two different variants, union and league, but for sake of this post I will gloss over the distinction between the two.
To anyone aware of the history of rugby in the United States, the proposal for the NRFL seems eerily similar to earlier failed attempts to grow the sport on American soil. In the 1950s, wrestling promoter and former NFL player Mike Dimitrio assembled a group of football-playing rugby-neophytes, dressed them in patriotic, football-like attire and proceeded to get, unsurprisingly, demolished in a tour against rugby league teams in Australia and New Zealand. It is hard not to get a sense of déjà vu from former national team coach Eddie O’Sullivan’s NRFL “combines,” which appear to specifically aim to recruit retiring or unsuccessful football players. A representative “All-American” team is scheduled to play the Leicester Tigers this summer, a club that has won the English premiership more than any other. Organizers are betting that the television spectacle surrounding this match will further jump start interest in a professional league. Sound familiar?
Despite the resemblances to Dimitrio’s failed efforts in the 1950’s, mainly his emphasis on spectacle and recruiting American football players over developing homegrown rugby talent, the NRFL could be successful. Given that very real possibility, current fans, players and coaches should take an interest in what the future shape of the NRFL will be. RugbyLaw, the Minneapolis-based firm involved in the effort, has been mostly silent about the important details. However, one has good reason to worry about future NRFL franchises being sold to billionaires who may have little interest in the league apart from its potential profitability, as has been the case in the NFL and other professional sporting leagues.
Consider the all too common practice within the NFL, as well as other pro-sports, wherein local or state taxpayers are forced to pony up millions for a new stadium every decade or so under the threat that the team will be moved to “greener” pastures. For instance, the state of Minnesota and city of Minneapolis recently put up 348 million and 150 million of public dollars, respectively, to keep the Vikings from moving to Los Angeles for a few more decades. The real tragedy of this practice is that such investments are never recouped, either in income growth or job production, by those forking over the dough. States and cities are more paying for the privilege of and status imparted by an NFL franchise (not to mention padding the earnings of team owners) rather than improving their local economic viability. There is likely no clearer case of corporate welfare and taxpayer waste than the pro-sport stadium extortion game.
This situation is all the more tragic given that the fix for this problem is dead simple: community ownership. Teams should be owned by those whose livelihoods lie in the community rather than by a select few jet-setting individuals. Local fans-owners are not going to threaten to move their team to a city they do not live in. Just look at the Green Bay Packers, the only community owned team in the NFL. The Packers have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL, in terms of franchise value and fan support (games have been consistently sold out for decades), despite being located in a town of around 200,000 people. The level of community investment in the team is almost unparalleled in the league, and the team is unlikely to ever relocate. There are numerous examples of successful community-owned teams in other pro-sports as well. What is particularly notable in the case of American Football is that the NFL currently outlaws community ownership – the Packers were grandfathered in. Although I am not so cynical to suggest that this regulation is a conspiratorial effort by rich owners to keep the pro-sport stadium extortion game going, it is certainly helpful to that cause.
The major political advantage of community ownership lies in the fact that decision making power in organizations tends to mirror its ownership structure. Fans owning a piece, if not majority, of their teams will mean that fans have a say in major decisions. This matters because the rich guy who buys a team as an investment is unlikely to have fans’ interests in mind. Moreover, one could imagine taking the model even further and structure the whole league so that it is, at least partly, owned and governed by fans, employees and players. Of course, running something so large would require the involvement of professional managers. Nevertheless, ownership by stakeholders rather than a small cadre of businessmen would mean that these managers would owe a greater deal of accountability to fans, employees and players in the same way that the typical CEO is beholden to his or her shareholders.
At stake in the determination of whether communities or business elites own and run the future NRFL are important issues like the valuation of in-person attendance versus television ratings. Are bodies in seats more or less important than television viewers? The privileging of the latter is clearly visible in the NHL, whose current commissioner oversaw the moving of teams from cities in the hockey heartland, such as Quebec City and Winnipeg, to the American South (where games are notoriously sparsely attended). NHL managers appear to prefer to roll the dice on potentially breaking into lucrative television markets in states like Florida rather than fill stadiums in Canada. Do American rugby fans want a league run by managers myopically chasing television ratings, or would they rather have a league that privileges home-grown support and the ability of locals to tailgate and attend games in person?
Cooperative and community ownership structures have a lot of potential to lessen or eliminate many of the unsavory and undesirable aspects of contemporary corporate-dominated capitalism, in pro-sports as much as anywhere else. The likely development of an American professional rugby league provides the opportunity to experiment with these models and realize a pro-sport system that meets the needs and wants of fans and players, rather than primarily those of rich owners. Current American rugby fans should not lose sight of the questions of “Who benefits?”, “Who decides?” and “Who owns what?” in their zeal for growing the domestic presence of the sport. Careful attention to these concerns will help realize the benefits of professionalization without many of its traditional pathologies.