Perry Baker, a double World Rugby player of the year, leads a slate of men’s and women’s “ambassadors” signed to play for equal pay in Premier Rugby Sevens (PR7s), a new US professional competition in the shortened form of rugby union.
Men’s US Eagles Carlin Isles, Danny Barrett, Stephen Tomasin and Folau Niua are also due to feature in a pilot event after the Olympic Games in Tokyo, most likely on a Saturday in October.
Women’s Eagles Abby Gustaitis, Ilona Maher and Naya Tapper have also signed. One more women’s international and one player from the men’s squad are due to be announced.
Ultimately, PR7s aims to run six men’s teams and four women’s teams, each featuring one ambassador, on a circuit of one-day tournaments in cities around the US. It is the brainchild of Owen Scannell, an ex-investment banker who played at Dartmouth and was director of operations for the New England Free Jacks in Major League Rugby.
Speaking to the Guardian, Scannell said the 10 ambassadors would “help with the visibility, some of the marketing outreach, and they will almost certainly be distributed as a captain for each team, with other players coming in as well”.
Tryouts will be held, Scannell said, adding: “We are looking at a vast majority, if not exclusively American players.”
Mike Tolkin, who coached the US men’s 15-a-side team at the 2015 Rugby World Cup and Rugby United New York in MLR in 2019, is PR7s general manager.
In a statement, Tolkin said: “Sevens is a fast-paced and dynamic game requiring skill, speed, power and precision. It’s an incredibly entertaining game to watch and PR7s wants to showcase the immense talent and athleticism of our athletes.”
Four venues for the pilot event are under consideration, one an NFL stadium. The other three potential venues are home to minor league baseball and soccer – the likely scale for regular-season play.
All the venues under consideration, Scannell said, are in eastern or central time zones. Previous pro sevens events in the US, on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series circuit, have been played in the west, in San Diego, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. On 25 and 26 June a “Quest for Gold” international event will be played as preparation for the Olympics at the home of the LA Galaxy MLS team, Dignity Health Sports Park.
Scannell said the first season of PR7s proper, in 2022, would feature a geographical spread of between six and 10 events.
Scannell said talks were ongoing for TV network coverage of the pilot event with every game available online. Funding, via a “group of private investors”, remains confidential.
Scannell said PR7s was close to a sanctioning agreement with USA Rugby.
As for the teams which PR7s will create, he said the process would at first feature “a little bit more art than science”.
“We would like to create some sort of regional balances on teams so they have some sort of area of the country that they represent,” he said, adding: “I think that adds to the fun and the rivalry that we’re trying to create.”
Scannell also said he wanted to produce “teams that are very competitive, outcomes that are uncertain and exciting for fans” and said: “We don’t want to have a Washington Generals side out there.”
The Generals are a basketball team that plays – and almost always loses – exhibition games against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Though disrupted by the pandemic, the US is home to thriving men’s and women’s sevens scenes contested by colleges and clubs. The current season of MLR, the 15-a-side US men’s pro league, will end with a championship game in August.
“We have a great relationship with MLR and think they’re doing a great job in terms of bringing eyeballs to the sport and giving fans a great experience,” Scannell said.
“Obviously there’s specialisation between the two forms of the game. If there are players that are interested in playing sevens, getting into that player pool is something we’d potentially look at.”
PR7s is not the first attempt to monetise sevens in the US.
An expanded version of the game, variously named Ultra Sevens or Super Sevens and featuring rotating squads playing 48-minute games in four periods instead of regular 15-minute contests in two halves, played a test event in 2014. It surfaced again in 2017.