|Mark Griffin - CEO, Play Rugby USA|
|Profile of the week|
Tuesday, 20 December 2011 09:27
Mark Griffin is a pioneer in the field of sports-themed youth development. He founded Play Rugby USA in June 2003 as a wellness and prevention resource for America’s urban youth with a philosophy of “developing youth through rugby.”
Prior to devoting his full attention on Play Rugby USA, he held another national leadership positions in youth sports as the National Youth and High School Director for USA Rugby. He is also an active member and proud representative of Up2Us a national coalition of approximately 500 sports-themed youth development organizations.
Mark also has 9 years of corporate banking experience with The Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays.
Throughout your decade in finance and banking, was rugby always somewhere in the back of your mind?
Rugby was always a thing I balance with work and had certainly always been a passion. I started up Play Rugby on weekends as a little side project and a hobby. It took a couple of years to realise that was really more of what I wanted to do. We just had to then formulise a business plan and work out how we can actually make it happen. It was all a bit of risk at the time, but it’s certainly something that has been rewarding to have done since.
Are there certain elements you can take from corporate and investment banking and apply it in the sports industry?
There is probably with any corporate job, such as managing people, developing relationships, learning the ins and outs of business and risk, presentation skills and thoroughness. You can transfer across all the generic work and business skills; even though the content of what you’re selling or what you’re creating is different.
What was the process for creating a framework for legitimate state based organisations?
We formulised a structure around a few organisations that had established some programming on a state level for youth and high school rugby. Basically, we just created a framework around how those organisations could develop. Engaging the board, coming up with a business plan, working out how to create some league structures around high school rugby, and importantly, how to promote rookie rugby and create some sustainability around it. It’s just starting to professionalize the game at the youth level with regard to the administration behind the game. That ultimately is what the USA needs over the long term to really flush all those kids through the system and get more of the 50 million kids over here playing rugby.
What is the best way of getting more people to play the sport?
It’s a push up from the bottom and a pull up from the top.
Pushing up from the bottom, the more kids you can get running with rugby balls and being coached fun games, the more it speaks for itself. For example, you can convert a whole school district, introduce rookie rugby into the curriculum and that will suddenly get 50,000 kids playing, which is great, but you still have to be able to provide them with a club, a weekend program, an after school program or somewhere where they can continue to play.
From the top; there’s the Sevens’ game and hopefully they can start doing better. Also, networks like NBC are showing a lot more coverage of rugby now because it’s in the Olympics.
Is it difficult attracting kids in the States to partake in rugby when there are similarities with American Football?
Not at a grass roots level. The game speaks for itself. It’s a very American sport really because it’s exciting, it’s fast, it’s high-scoring and high contact. It’s more at the institutional level that it becomes a problem. You have to compete against something if you want rugby to be a season that’s endorsed by school districts as a varsity sport. You’re competing for budgets and that’s where it gets tough. Even though rugby is an inexpensive game, it’s not yet fully established in the system.
The whole structure of sport over here is very much based around professional sport. It’s very successful as a business but not as participation sports. There isn’t a bunch of amateur American football leagues and all the different divisions that you have in rugby that exist even in America. That’s where rugby really offers a participation sport for large numbers.
Due to the physical aspect of rugby and American football, parents have begun to push their children towards what they perceive as a safe sport, such as soccer. How big of an obstacle is that to overcome?
All the young kids we work with play tag rugby, which is no dangerous than soccer so we don’t have any problems overcoming that perception. All you have to do is show a photo or show a video.
I think that whole perception is just getting broken down by the fact that there are now thousands of kids running around playing flag rugby and if they want to keep playing, ultimately they’re going to have to play tackle rugby. I think the other comparison is people think it’s like the crazy game of American Football without pads. When you start having those conversations, it’s quite easy to explain the difference between hitting somebody with your helmet and actually making a tackle wrap.