(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)
Blaine Scully didn’t start out as a rugby lifer, but he’s made it his life’s work to increase opportunities for the elite men and women who play the sport.
A three-sport athlete in high school, Scully didn’t find the sport of rugby until he enrolled in college at UCLA. Spending two years there before transferring to Cal, Scully would go on to rack up accolades that included being a four-time All-American, captain of the 2011 USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Touring Squad, and winning two national titles with Cal.
Now, the current captain of the USA Eagles Men’s Team is on a mission to ensure rugby continues to grow in the U.S. and with that growth, create meaningful opportunities for the country’s national team members. The vehicle: the first players union in American rugby — the U.S. Rugby Players Association (USRPA).
“There was a small group of us that had an interest in building a players association because many of us had been part of other professional environments where we saw the value of having someone at the table to represent and speak on behalf of the athletes,” said Scully. “I came to the realization that to move this idea forward, someone was going to have to own it. That someone just happened to be me.”
In a sport where schedules are traditionally hectic between national team and club competitions and tours, Scully — along fellow Eagle James Gillenwater — felt that an organization was needed to present a united front, give all parties involved the chance to have a collective conversation and advocate for the highest possible player experience for all national team athletes.
Chatting over Skype with Gillenwater to architect the organization, Scully would use nights after training to learn as much as he could about players unions, design what the structure should look like and try to build support for the association at the grassroots level amongst the female and male players.
“One of the things that makes our players association so unique is it’s inclusive of both men and women,” said Scully. “We thought that together, as a unit, this would be not only the best way to collectively have a conversation, but that moving forward in a joint capacity would enable us to have greater impact for all of our athletes across the sport.”
It took three years of back and forth between Scully, Gillenwater, and players such as USA Women’s Eagles Sevens Olympic Captain Kelly Griffin, to truly get the USRPA off the ground.
“Giving players a voice and empowering them to have a say in their own player welfare builds the foundation for a strong and successful teams,” says Griffin. “Having a player association is also very important for the continued growth of rugby in the USA.”
Not only did Scully have to educate himself and the others he hoped a players association would support, he also had to educate USA Rugby’s leadership team — the sport’s governing body — on why the establishment of a players association would benefit the organization.
“It’s to the governing body’s benefit to have athletes at the table, having conversations in a meaningful way and really contribute, because, frankly, they’re incredibly valuable resources,” said Scully. “I think once you realize the kind of collaboration that is possible and what can actually come from it, mutual growth can happen and we all become advocates of the same unified vision. When you look around the world, the healthiest rugby playing countries and unions are supported by an engaged playing base – in the form of a vibrant Association.”
A far more entrenched sport abroad, Scully argued to the governing body that to enable an emerging sport like rugby to grow some real footing inside the U.S., there had to be some sort of consensus when it came to working together.
The development and now operation of the USRPA received a real boost from Michael Young, a Chicago labor attorney with a passion for rugby. Having found the sport while studying in Ireland during college, Young went on to found a rugby club for Chicago-based lawyers. Young was connected to Scully through a mutual friend to discuss the developing players union, and the opportunity of marrying his profession and passion together.
“What struck me as most incredible about USRPA was the truly organic drive behind all of this. I was inspired by our players’ passion to band together on their own and not just simply join an already established labor union for financial support or help organizing,” said Young, now the USRPA executive director. “From the outset, they have chosen to take complete ownership of USRPA and build it from the ground up, to be 100 percent run by the players for the players.”
The USRPA has also found critical partners in athlete brand strategy consultancy, BrandForward, and the NFLPA, which has helped the USRPA through its business unit REP Worldwide to build out the group licensing approach and set the table for the association’s deal with Amazon — something that Scully points to as a great step forward for not only the association, but the sport of rugby as a whole.
“Merch by Amazon, which is the platform we are using, offered us a low barrier of entry and allowed us to get set up right away and start turning things around quickly,” said Scully. “Going from having no player merchandise offering to having the opportunity for fans to be able to jump on Amazon and Prime something to their house has been really cool for us.”
BrandForward is working with the USRPA on crafting its player-centric brand strategy and a professional development program for their members.
“We feel confident in the steps we’re taking to make a positive impact and grow the quality of the experience for our athletes. Our main objective is to leave the jersey in a better place.” – Blaine Scully
A self-described bootstrapped startup, the USRPA have now given itself a chance to “co-write” the future of rugby in the states, something that just three years ago wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of everyone involved.
And what exactly does that future look like? A modernized game and governance structure.
“We’ve already started initial conversations around a collective bargaining agreement with USA Rugby that will provide a standard agreement across the board for both our men and women,” said Scully. “The goal is to create a professionalized and proactive environment that is different than the environment that has existed for the past 20 years.”
(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)