International News - An American Dream

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Kevin Roberts is a radical businessman with a passion for rugby and an ambitious vision for the future of the US game

In Stanford, California, the United States Eagles duly cruised past Uruguay in the second leg of their World Cup qualifying tie to earn their place at France 2007, where they will join a hellish Pool A alongside England, South Africa, Samoa and another qualifier. After winning 42-13 in Montevideo, it was a formality but the Eagles finished the job off, winning 33-7. To qualify for the finals is, at present, the limit of American aspirations. In terms of love and affection, self-help and sheer numbers, America is a major player in rugby. Add officially licensed players of both sexes to their college and veteran players, and more than 80,000 Americans play. And rising.

While other national teams have eased into ultra-professionalism, the Eagles have had to exist on the same abstract goodnesses, battling lack of funding, huge distances and the country’s obsession with the giant American sports. Their performance levels have sunk, and the nadir may have been reached last summer when they lost at home by 74-6 to New Zealand Maori and then, heavily, to Canada. It has all left an ache of longing, in America and in the rest of the world. Rugby, anxious for more top contenders, has always been aware of the potential of America and the commercial benefits that would flow in torrents should it ever truly engage with the sport.

KEVIN ROBERTS, then the president of Pepsi in Canada, wanted to mark his company’s epic achievement in outselling Coke, the traditional brand leader. “We celebrated by machine-gunning a Coke vending machine on stage at a conference. Risky? Yes. Stupid? Probably. Memorable, inspiring? You bet.”

They say that one man cannot change history. Rugby might have to get back to them on that. Roberts, now the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, has had a profound impact. English-born, working in America, Kiwi by inclination, he delivered the most recent Sunday Times Prince Obolensky Lecture. He was a central figure as the sport went professional. As a board member of the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), he brokered an agreement in 1998 between the All Blacks and adidas. It was the biggest deal team sport had seen with the exception of Nike’s tie-up with the Brazilian football team. Recently, the deal was extended until 2010, and it brings in roughly 25% of all the NZRU’s annual income. His near-superhuman energy, his relentless challenging of norms and his dizzying career CV already make you rather glad he is on rugby’s side.

And rugby has found a sumptuous serendipity. If there is one post where the appointment of the right man could shift the game on its axis, it is the post of head of USA rugby. Here’s the serendipity: Roberts has landed the post.

The result will be the advent of a professional game in America. Just as a start. Last week, after an American revolution, he was appointed chairman of the board of USA Rugby. Recently, all that saved the top end from oblivion, with the old board and players at loggerheads and funding dried up, was, as Roberts admits, the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) grant of £1.5m, part of their high-performance grants awarded to the so-called Tier Two nations of the world. The IRB, increasingly tuned in, even had to loan officials, including an acting chief executive in Steve Griffiths.

Roberts is thrilled. “The biggest commercial market in the world and the game we love the most. It’s bloody marvellous. We want to see how fast we can fly and how big we can dream.” He has achieved in around seven days what other major unions have failed to do in 11 years of pro rugby, separating the administration for the amateur and professional games. “I did want to pick my own board. At this stage of my career, I didn’t want to work with dickheads. We have all asked each other: do you want to come on this journey?” The new board contains six “outside” people, rugby lovers but not necessarily career rugby officials, high-powered people from business, media and the army, plus Dave Hodges (ex-Llanelli) and Jen Joyce, players elected by the national men’s and women’s squads. Bill Latham, a former chairman, remains as a link to the old congress, which continues to run the amateur game and which, magnificently, voted to downgrade itself to leave the new board at the helm of elite rugby.

“The important thing,” Roberts says, “is to get the mix right between sports and business. So many get that wrong. It’s about rugby. We have to play better rugby and win more matches.” To this end, he will announce in the next week the appointment of a president of rugby operations. “That is an American term, and it signals that we want to do things the American way. Our man must have huge presence, vision, must be able to inspire our elite athletes. He must have mana.”

We understand from other sources that the front-runners are John Kirwan, former All Black wing and former Italy coach, and Nigel Melville, former England captain and former Gloucester director of rugby. Roberts says the post will carry “up to two or three times” the salary of the new chief executive that the board will appoint. “That is how big we see this job.”

He wants to start a professional rugby set-up in the country, with four regional teams, plus their own academies springing from the IRB grant, with a real prospect of a new Tri-Nations involving Canada, improving rapidly with their own IRB grant, and Argentina; plus a Super 12 with four teams from each country, growing from the existing NA4 event.

For anybody bar Roberts, the financial imperatives would be insurmountable. So would the task of penetrating the mainstream American media — of the top rugby players, only the great Dan Lyle, the No 8, has ever been profiled in Sports Illustrated. Typically, Roberts is well down the track. “Look at the value that could be added for companies already in rugby if they came into partnership with American rugby. But I also hope to bring to rugby companies that are new to the sport.” His goals are plain. “We want to reach the quarter-finals of the world sevens by 2009 and the quarter-finals of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.” That would mean the Eagles would need to beat one of the eight foundation rugby unions, say, England, Wales, New Zealand or Ireland. America has also tabled a bid to host the 2009 Rugby World Sevens. The event would be the encouragement the USA needs. The bid must succeed.

IN MONTEVIDEO last weekend, the most significant Eagle was Jeff Hullinger, the wing, and not simply because he scored three tries. Two years ago, Hullinger had never even watched a rugby match. He came to rugby after failing to land an American football bursary from his alma mater, the famous Brigham Young University. He was in excellent company. As Roberts says: “There are around 16,000 footballers in the college system in America. Around 1,000 of those become involved in football as a living. What the hell are the other 15,000 doing? They are fantastic athletes; they run 40 metres in 4.3 seconds; they hit like Jonah Lomu; they are awesome. But there is no pathway for them. They miss the cut, they often drift into minimum wage jobs.”

It is only just over 30 years since America played its first Test of the modern era, under an inspirational coach called Dennis Storer, of UCLA. He was an expat Brit, but his squad was based on ex-American footballers. His masters thesis was on how to convert them into rugby players. Good reading for Roberts.

Roberts himself has written a successful book called Lovemarks — The Future Beyond Brands. It discusses “loyalty beyond reason” to a particular product or manufacturer, with which you engage emotionally. “Adidas is a lovemark for many people. I went into the concept store in Seattle. I didn’t need anything, but $880 later I came out a happy guy.”

It is not everyone that will stump up $880 for something they don’t want. But Roberts is avidly pursuing his lovemark, his emotional engagement with rugby. He may well be showing loyalty beyond reason, because in terms of financial rewards he probably has better things to do. But there will be more than a few happy guys if his extraordinary vision is fulfilled.

Late on Friday, an e-mail arrived in my queue. It said, simply: “This is not a story. It is a cause. KR.”

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