As a sidebar to the national high school championships held in Sandy, Utah last weekend, USA Rugby officials and representatives of 20 men’s college rugby programs met to lay the groundwork for a new collegiate premier competition that could ultimately feature as many as 32 top-flight teams from around the country.
The Division I Premier competition will be overseen by USA Rugby’s new College Department and will augment the current Division I and Division II championship scheme.
Play at the premier level is set to begin in March 2011 and continue through mid-May.
Unlike the current collegiate model, premier competition will be organized into four regional conferences which cut across territorial and local area union lines.
Cal, for example, is set to join Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, Central Washington, San Diego State, UC-Davis, UCLA and St. Mary’s in the Pacific Conference. Cal Poly, San Diego State and UCLA are members of the Southern California Rugby Football Union, while Cal and St. Mary’s compete in the Northern California Rugby Football Union. Central Washington belongs to the Pacific Northwest Rugby Football Union.
Tentatively, members of the Western Conference include Air Force, Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Utah and Wyoming.
The Southern Conference will likely be made up of Arkansas State, Life University, Oklahoma, Tennessee, LSU and, possibly, Notre Dame.
The Eastern Conference will consist of Army, Dartmouth, Delaware, Kutztown, Navy, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.
Each team will play the other members of its regional conference with the top two teams in each advancing to a three-weekend playoff tournament in May.
There will be a promotion/relegation mechanism that will provide a pathway for Division I teams to challenge the weakest premier competitor for a slot in the top tier.
USA Rugby hasn’t yet disseminated participation agreements to schools, so the conference rosters aren’t set in stone. What’s fairly well agreed-upon, though, is that the financing model would be profit sharing, rather than cost sharing. In other words, profits would be split from league-wide sponsorships but each team would be responsible for its own costs.
Each team will retain their own broadcast rights unless a title sponsor for the playoff games also wants to produce and telecast a regional match. In that event, the money would go into the kitty to be parceled out with the money from the title sponsorship itself.
On the cost side, the greatest expense would likely be travel which, for many lightly-endowed programs,can be substantial.
Another concern for some schools -- especially in the geographically dispersed Southern Conference -- might be the travel schedule of their student-athletes. A lot of Friday classes may have to be missed for travel to Saturday rugby matches.
In deciding to sign up for the premier league, schools are going to weigh concerns over costs and schedules against potential sponsorship revenues. It remains to be seen how many actually ink participation agreements. For now, the minimum number of teams needed to move forward is unknown.