USA Rugby takes next step towards pro set-up
Brian Spegele
March 7, 2008

With the announcement Wednesday that USA Rugby will officially go ahead with plans for a professional sevens tournament in Las Vegas later this year, top-side amateurs around the country will anticipate their crack at a US$1,000,000 prize and the prospect of international exposure.

USA officials granted exclusive broadcast rights to sports entrepreneur William Tatham Jr. An attorney in Northern California, Tatham has long been involved with USA Rugby. Wednesday's announcement solidifies years of speculation that professional play would soon reach the all-amateur continent.

In 2005, as Tatham's team worked to pin down investors for the American Rugby Football League, USA Rugby granted the entrepreneur exclusive rights to own, operate, and broadcast all professional sevens rugby.

Wednesday's announcement expands on the initial agreement, awarding Tatham new rights to broadcast collegiate invitational sevens tournaments, men's club sevens tournaments, and men and women's all-star sevens competitions.

Already, Tatham has been in contact with major American networks, USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville said. He would not comment on the networks specifically interested, but called the new agreements "a step forward" in developing the American game.

Melville found encouragement recently in the Eagle's sevens squad following what he described as respectable performances throughout the IRB circuit this year. The former England captain is confident that with the right preparation, the side can perform well at the World Cup Sevens in Dubai in 2009.

"What we are trying to do is strengthen that squad, take them professional, and have a good crack at the World Cup," Melville said.

The league will begin this summer with tryouts on each coast. Players selected will represent one-of-five American teams competing in the competition. The other 11 sides will comprise players from around the world, Melville said.

Melville said he is excited to see whether non-rugby players also turn up for the combines. USA Rugby has long sought to recruit former university American football players who never made the NFL. Only a small fraction of college footballers go on to play professional, Melville has said, and harnessing their athleticism is key to launching the game.

Melville cited top-side player Takudzwa Ngwenya as proof inexperienced athletes could grasp the game with relative ease. Ngwenya has only been playing the game for two years, Melville said - look at him now.

The Kenyan-born speedster signed with French-side Biarritz last fall for a contract rumored to be worth about US$29,000 per month. A world class performance at last year's World Cup turned European coaches' heads and instantly created a new poster boy for USA Rugby.

While Melville told earlier this year that hastening the development of America's professional game could be detrimental in the long run, Wednesday's announcement marks the singing of an entirely different tune. Since the Las Vegas Sevens will include 5 American teams - about 60 players - Melville indicated the tournament would maintain a very high level of play.

The Sevens Eagles, led by head coach Al Caravelli, currently rank twelfth in the World Series, four points behind Wales. Despite the shoddy results, Melville has been thrilled with Caravelli's performance. The opportunity to take that side professional could serve as a stepping-stone to greater presence on the world's stage.

As for broadcasting the tournament, Tatham is confident televised sevens rugby will even appeal to audiences unfamiliar to the game.

"We absolutely believe the sevens is a perfect fit for today's young television and sports demographic," Tatham said in a statement.

If plans proceed as expected, Melville said the tournament could begin next fall. USA Rugby, in conjunction with Tatham, continues to develop a marketing campaign for the interested players and investors, Melville said.

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