NOTE: This Q&A with Hywel ap Rees, a sports consultant that pitched USA Rugby as a consultant. The opinions here are those of Mr. ap Rees, not Rugby Wrap Up. We welcome responses from any of the parties discussed.
NEW YORK, NY – In December 2015, sports Sponsorship Consultant Hywel ap Rees wrote a now-notorious open email about the state fundraising and sponsorship of rugby in the USA. His ire was mainly directed at key members of USA Rugby as an organization, and their failure to achieve fundamental milestones for a national governing body of a sport. RWU’s Junoir Blaber asked Mr. ap Rees to explain his opinions in greater depth. The following Q&A resulted:
JB: Thanks for joining us, Hywel. For those who don’t know you, could you give us some background into your rugby credentials, professional credentials and why your name sounds like a 1970s Welsh international?
ap Rees: Thanks for having me. Briefly, about my background. My father worked for the UN, so I grew up all over the world, mostly Africa, with a stint in Fiji from when I was 15-19. I went to boarding school at Llandovery College and the University at Swansea, both in Wales. I moved to New York in 1987, where I played first for Old Maroon and Essex, then White Plains. From there, I moved to Chicago and played for and helped coach the Chicago Griffins, before settling in the Bay Area in 1999, where I ended up coaching San Mateo for a few years. “Coaching” is too strong a term; I had the opportunity to manage one of the most talented group of rugby players I have ever been around. Away from rugby as a profession, I spent many years selling sports sponsorships for most of the NBA, MLB and NHL teams.
JB: Were you ever an employee for USA Rugby?
ap Rees: I have never been an employee USA Rugby. I approached Nigel Melville and offered my services way back when it was first announced that the US were going to bid for the 2018 7s World Cup.
JB: Okay, we’re up to speed on your background. Now for the nitty gritty… Why did you write that letter?
ap Rees: Two reasons: Firstly, as that situation developed regarding the 7s World Cup and it looked more and more likely that we would win the bid and it would be hosted in my back yard, I stepped up my efforts talking to my many business contacts. I talked to them on a “what if” basis: “If the 7s came to the Bay Area, would you be interested in being a sponsor?”
The responses were 100% positive and I kept Nigel informed of every potential sponsor. Finally, the perfect storm hit in one week and we were awarded the World Cup and we won the London 7s.
The 15s World Cup was about to start. This was the ideal time to sign up major sponsors. Nothing was done. Things were emerging about Rugby International Marketing (RIM), but no-one knew anything about them other than they had been given the rights to market US Rugby, that 10% had been sold to the English Rugby Union (RFU) and no-one knew anyone who worked at RIM.
Pro Rugby was also hitting the news and rumor mill, but again, no-one knew anything and USA Rugby was being being extremely secretive. Finally, after some months of emails and a meeting in San Jose, Nigel told me that I should submit an application to a recruitment company for the position of Chief Commercial Officer for RIM, a position that was to be based in NY.
None of this made any sense. After weeks of silence, I was finally told that the company had forwarded two candidates to USA Rugby. A year later, the position has still not been filled. No sponsors have been signed, losing USA Rugby over a year’s worth sponsorship revenue, plus all the marketing opportunities that could have been tied in with 15s World Cup.
Later, we heard that Melville is going to head up RIM… What? Two years after it was launched? He is still the only employee that we know of – and he hasn’t even started yet. There are still no sponsors. I don’t know what the RFU has done for USA Rugby, but that deal is like the Red Sox selling 10% to the Yankees; it is ludicrous. Why do we in the US need help in sports marketing?
Secondly, everyone I talk to is frustrated and confused. USA Rugby chairman Bob Latham says RIM and Nigel’s appointment were approved by the Board. Without a clear explanation, it appears to me that USA Rugby, under the leadership of Nigel Melville, created a for-profit arm, gave it all the rights, then the person who created the company announces he is leaving to run it. Did he use his position as CEO of a non-profit to create a position for himself? Who signed the agreement on behalf of USA Rugby and who signed on behalf or RIM? Did Nigel represent both entities? I am not a legal professional so I can’t speak to the legality of this but I can say, this appears unsavory.
JB: Our Jake Frechette wants to know why we should take your criticism seriously when you admit you don’t know the relationship between USA Rugby and PRO Rugby? Let’s be honest, all of what you say runs contrary to PRO Rugby’s press releases, our interviews with the CEO Doug Schoninger and Director of Rugby Steve Lewis and what USA Rugby has said?
ap Rees: We need a professional league, but the way PRO Rugby was developed, set up and is being executed is amateurish in the extreme. Months of secrecy and silence followed by bold announcements that later have to be changed. The problems are overwhelming: finding players who are able to leave their current jobs for three months to play rugby, plus their pay is said to be spread out over 12 months; teams, coaches all being announced over a very long period, and it is set to launch in a matter of weeks. If this group is “Pro”, then they should have been aware of potential problems with fields and with the different insurance requirements in each state. To the outsider, it sounds like a couple of guys got together over a beer or a cup of coffee; one says he has a company that owns the rights to rugby in America and the other says I have a bunch of contacts at a number of really small, out-of-the-way sports fields – no major markets – but we could make ourselves some money.
JB: Well, it looks like they are pulling it off and we’ve established that you were never hired, so if you are not an employee with an axe to grind, what are you and why do you care so much?
ap Rees: I put together a list of Fortune 500 companies who are seriously interested in sponsoring USA Rugby and Melville ignored every one and there has been no explanation, nor has there been a response to my letter.
JB: Okay, but again for the record, you were not hired. Changing gears, USA Rugby released a statement saying they were seeking a replacement for Nigel as CEO. What is your reaction to this quote from Board Chairman Bob Latham: “Of course, Nigel won’t be far away and there will likely be a great deal of interaction between Nigel in his role at RIM and the new USA Rugby CEO.”
ap Rees: As I said earlier, there is a very bad smell to this.
JB: Many American rugby fans believe things good things have happened in the USA because of Nigel – and at times in spite of Nigel. What do you believe happened because of him and in spite of him?
ap Rees: He has done a lot of great things, the 7s World Cup, the pro league – despite its massive short comings – and he played a role in putting together the ARC, though it appears Argentina were the driving force. Where he has failed abysmally is in bringing in sponsorship money. 2013 saw about $2.8million in sponsors, I believe. That’s the equivalent of a bake sale. We lost between $10-15 million in 2015 and will lose the same this year and now he’s leaving to take over this aspect? Why would the the leadership of USA Rugby deliver better business performance as the leaders of RIM than they did as leaders of USA Rugby? USA Rugby have failed to publish a business plan for the past nine years. Will RIM have a business plan? What is it? If so, why can USA Rugby leadership create a business plan under RIM when they have failed to do so under USA Rugby?
JB: We’ll see soon enough… On the average club level, I hosted a seminar for three years straight for the old Metro NY RFU on recruiting, sponsorship and fundraising so I respect your experience. Is there any general advice you want to offer?
ap Rees: Sales is all about relationships.The US rugby family is probably the most connected organization in sports. These are people who were athletes but didn’t get sports scholarships to college. Their intelligence earned them their places. They took up rugby, then after graduation landed great jobs and are now leaders in their fields. Every club has such people and we need to utilize their intelligence, their experience and their contacts.
JB: In your letter, which will no doubt cost you future relationships, you mentioned the Americans 6N. What are your thoughts on it?
ap Rees: Its an outstanding development and kudos to all those put it together. It’s good to see we have TV coverage, but streaming on its own is almost worthless. Again, we have wasted the opportunity for sponsors to advertise this year.
JB: USA Eagles 7s seem to be the most successful of the four national teams currently. Are they being marketed poorly and should their sponsorship be better?
ap Rees: 7s in the US is unlike 7s in any other country. 7s is the key to the growth of all rugby in the US. People enjoy watching it, we excel at it and it is the perfect way to introduce viewers to the game, Once they understand 7s, then we work on educating them in 15s.
As I said earlier,our sponsorship efforts are appalling. Heathrow Express? That’s like the Greyhound Bus Service sponsoring France.
JB: I take the bus to Buffalo to see the in-laws, for the record… That aside, what would you like the next CEO to try and do regarding sponsorship?
ap Rees: If the money, in theory, will be coming into USA Rugby through distributions from RIM, it’s obvious to see where the power-base will be – if that money actually comes through? Again, why will commercial performance be better under RIM? I believe the next CEO should be American, should have a successful history in managing a sports organization, should have a passion for rugby, should have an extensive knowledge of sponsorship sales and marketing, should have 100% control over RIM, and should buy back the 10% given to England. Finally, he or she should hire someone to head up the sponsorship sales immediately before any more time and revenue is lost.
To me, it’s clear from statements by Melville, that he plans to help appoint his successor, that he and the board of USA Rugby see him retaining management control over USA Rugby through his new role as CEO of RIM.
JB: Is there anything you would like to say or re-iterate that has not been covered?
ap Rees: We all love this game, but we are not going anywhere without money. First you get the money, then you have the power to do everything you need to develop the game, from mini rugby to men’s and women’s national teams. We have already lost 18 months of marketing opportunity to tie in the success of our Men’s and Women’s 7s with the win in London, the awarding of the 2018 World Cup, the return of rugby to the Olympics and both the US Men and Women qualifying. 18 months lost and still counting!
JB: If any of those companies you mentioned are still looking for rugby to sponsor please feel free to send them RWU’s way.
ap Rees: Everyone is asking me the same thing. The main problem is that the companies don’t want to sponsor individual entities within US Rugby. They want to give one check, then have input and an accounting of how their money is being allocated. I believe that once USA Rugby gets its act together and starts signing some of these companies, they will then be interested in all the peripheral rugby organizations, from media to suppliers to fitness companies and all the rest. If you sign one, they will come.
JB: Well that about wraps it up. Once again, Hywel, thanks for joining us.
ap Rees: Thanks for having me and it was a pleasure, I appreciate the opportunity.
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