By Jackie Finlan / Feb 24, 2021
The College Rugby Championship (CRC) 7s is the most recognizable product in American college rugby, and after a year’s hiatus, the event returns via National Collegiate Rugby (NCR). The membership organization is reworking the tournament to fit its lineup of national championships, but “May Madness 7s” intends to capture the verve that had catapulted the CRC into the general sporting arena. CRC 7s Tournament Director Pat Clifton brings solid experience and familiarity to the post, and is preparing a dynamic event that can react to the challenges of Covid-19 but also establish an important foundation.
“You’ve got to put something on the board to shoot for,” Clifton leaned optimistically into 2021.
Clifton is a smart choice for the CRC 7s job. The Kansas City, Mo., native is a United World Sports (UWS) alum and spent a decade learning about and reporting on the company’s events, including the CRC, USA 7s and Varsity Cup. He’s also a rugby do-er, and has been a college coach and Director of Rugby, referee, administrator, tournament director, and more. In November 2020, Clifton joined NCR as 7s commissioner and was instrumental in the acquisition of the CRC.
“The CRC is a great brand in college rugby,” Clifton said. “I think it means something and it carries a lot of weight with people. And there’s no doubt that since we started using the term ‘CRC’ in conversations again with coaches, with stakeholders, with sponsors that they’ve been warm to that conversation. So, we think the brand has a lot of value.”
Social media supports that assessment. The USA Sevens Rugby Facebook page – which is now entirely CRC focused – has close to 900,000 followers. But there hasn’t been anything to talk about since 2019, the last time the CRC was held, and sponsor Rhino Rugby dominates the account’s news feed.
“The fact that the community isn’t able to highlight its people and celebrate its triumphs and losses and stories through that social media page – which is so large – the way that it did for so many years has been missing,” Clifton said. “And so I thought, ‘How can we get this back?’”
Clifton and NCR CEO Jeremy Treece connected with Patti Prusmack (widow to the late, great A. Jon Prusmack, the visionary behind UWS) and Rhino Rugby and started conversations about a transfer of ownership.
“I think it’s a win-win,” Clifton said of the CRC’s return. “I think it’ll be good for college rugby. I think it’ll be good for NCR. I think it’ll be good for the Prusmack legacy and for that event. Because for the good, or bad or the ugly, I think that there’s a lot that the CRC brought to the game that has been missing since it’s been gone, and hopefully we can bring all the good back and add even more to it.”
So the CRC is back, but expect changes. Firstly, the event is being run by a membership organization, not a private company, and so NCR’s duty in running the CRC is to its teams. The tournament is positioning itself as a true national championship, but 2021 has to be an invitational given Covid-19.
“The CRC struggled with the ‘national championship’ moniker and it was a part of what turned the relationship between [UWS] and USA Rugby sour and made it competitive,” Clifton explained. “We’re going to make the CRC the truest national championship that’s ever existed in college 7s by uniting the clans, getting everybody under one umbrella – hopefully – and having a true qualification pathway to our championship. That is not possible in Covid but it will be potentially possible next year.”
How can NCR “unite the clans” when the CRC is for members only?
“From NCR’s standpoint, you could be a member of us, of DIA, of CRAA and ACRA and USA Rugby and every other membership you could possibly want. We’re not precluding anyone from doing that,” Clifton said. “So if you’re a Life or Lindenwood, or any other school that wants to participate in the CRC or any other event or any other kind of service activation that NCR has, all you have to do is become a member to be eligible … and dual membership is not a problem for us.
“Now I would say, if you’re Life or if you’re Lindenwood and you’re looking at this dual membership, and you think it’s a problem, find out who’s making it a problem for you,” he continued. “I would say there might be some other players in the water who are trying to make dual membership a problem, and I would try to reverse engineer why they’re trying to make it a problem and why would they be incentivized to do that. Because all we want to do is offer value to college rugby. We’re not trying to prevent anyone from doing the same thing. We just don’t want anybody to try and prevent us from offering that same value.”
The goal is 32 men’s teams and 16 women’s teams for Memorial Day Weekend, and NCR is currently getting playing-status updates from its current and potential members. When the event location is finalized, the full Covid-19 protocols will follow, and then teams can work with their schools for approval to participate. Clifton indicated that there are dozens of teams that could sign up today given the proper agreement. He also noted that programs that have that ability also tend to have good relationships with and support from their universities and athletic departments. In other words, the programs that are able to play also tend to be competitive teams.
“We may get there, we may not,” Clifton said of hitting the participation numbers. “But we’re only going to allow the teams with administrative support to play. We’re not trying to usurp any college’s policies or safety protocols.
“A lot can change between now and May, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the last year or so, it’s plans can change,” he added. “It’s mobile, it’s dynamic, if we’ve got to adjust, we will.”
The 2021 CRC is also planning a 10s tournament for conference all-star teams. The women’s side already has that infrastructure in place: Every January sees conference teams head to Florida for the National All-Star 7s Championship.
“One thing this allows us to do is try some things and see if there’s an appetite for it,” Clifton said. “I don’t think a college all-star 10s championship has ever happened. We’d love to do a 15s one but the mechanics that go with a 15s all-star team, the numbers, all of that seems pretty high versus 7s. Though with 7s we’re not servicing the bigger bodies – the props, the locks.
“What we wanted to do: Any member of ours that has the ability and desire to be serviced, we wanted to create vehicles to service them. So 10s is a compromise to have a lower roster number but allows the non-7s body types a chance to play. [NCR] didn’t want to say: Anyone who plays 7s had the opportunity to play 7s in 2020-21. We wanted to say: Anybody who plays rugby had the opportunity to play this season.”
The 10s tournament and all-star aspects will be evaluated after the event, but the reality is the 2021 CRC will look nothing like future events, and that doesn’t bother Clifton.
“There’s no question that the 2021 CRC is not going to look like the 2022 CRC and it’s not going to look like the 2023 CRC, and so on and so forth,” Clifton said. “Just like the 2020 NBA season didn’t look like any one prior or any one thereafter. And the 2020 NWSL bubble didn’t look anything like women’s professional soccer did before or will thereafter. So we think and we hope that we’ll get some grace from people to understand that the product we put on the field this year – just like the NFL, just like every other sporting product in the world – is not going to be at cut-and-copy template for the rest of time for this event.
“That doesn’t change the fact that there are a bunch of college rugby teams and players that can play, their universities say they can safely play, they want to play, and they just need a platform,” he added. “If we can provide a good experience to the people who can take part in it, that will hopefully help us prove to the college rugby world that we’ve got some value to add, and that we’re a good place to call, ‘home.’”
The broadcasting options are in development. Clifton indicated that, at the very least, the CRC will be streamed from the USA Sevens’ Facebook page.
“When [UWS] ran the Silicon Valley 7s in 2017 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose … they got 3.5 million impressions by just streaming directly to their Facebook,” Clifton said. “If we have a place where [892,000] followers can freely share our content and spread the good gospel of college rugby far and wide digitally, then I think that’s something we’re definitely going to take advantage of.”
Clifton said that reaction to the CRC's return has been positive. There are a lot of questions - notably regarding the to-be-announced location - that will be answered as Covid-19 allows. But more than anything, NCR is seeing teams revive with the hope of rugby in the near future.
"Most people are like, 'O.K., there’s college rugby happening this spring. Where is it and how do we get involved," Clifton said.