Harvard To Elevate Women's Rugby to Varsity Status

A year from now, Harvard will have a 42nd varsity team, a team that will play in a new multi-million dollar stadium, if all goes according to plan.

Last week, the Harvard athletic department announced that women’s rugby will become a varsity sport in the 2013-2014 season. Keith W. Cooper ’83, president of the Harvard rugby alumni association, said that the new status is just one step in a complete remodeling of the men’s and women’s rugby programs.

“This is a real signal moment for Harvard rugby,” Cooper said. “We have an opportunity to, for the first time, support—both financially and administratively—the sport in the way it should be supported. I think this is going to lead to a really strong and professional program that everyone can be proud of.”

The move had been discussed within the rugby team for years, according to team president Sarah E. L. MacVicar ’13, but serious discussions with the athletic department only began roughly a year ago. While MacVicar noted that there are some negative consequences to gaining varsity status—namely losing its self-run status—she said that the benefits were too great to pass up.

Once the team decided it was ready to apply for varsity status, the biggest issue was proving to the athletic department that the program had the strength in numbers necessary to sustain a competitive team long-term, according to MacVicar. In the end, MacVicar said it was a “pretty smooth process,” thanks in large part to the team’s recent success, winning the USA Rugby Collegiate Division II National Championship in 2011.

Now that it has achieved varsity status, the team will undergo a transitional year during the upcoming season to prepare for the more stringent practice rules and eligibility regulations that come with competing at the varsity level.

MacVicar said that the biggest change will be monitoring the bottom line. In the past, the club had “just been getting by financially,” according to MacVicar. While donations in the past year have helped keep the program stable, MacVicar expects the team will need a more sustainable financial structure from now on.

“It’ll be very different than it is now,” MacVicar said.

Like other varsity sports, rugby will have a combined "Friends" group—which helps to spearhead fundraising efforts—for its men’s and women’s programs, even while the men’s team does not have varsity status. This fall, the group will launch a campaign to raise $10 million. According to Cooper, roughly a third will go toward building a new field for the rugby squads.

Cooper said the group has been planning the stadium for a year, and already has a location and design in mind. The group hopes to build a new stadium behind Jordan Field—home of the field hockey team—along Soldiers Field Road. The field would be surrounded by a mound of earth to limit wind and sound, and rugby would be played on artificial turf.

“We are pretty far along,” Cooper said. “It’s going to be terrific.”

The remaining funds will be used on facility improvements, operating costs, and an endowment for full-time coaches for both the men’s and women’s teams.

“Rugby has been supported over the years by volunteers and part-time coaches who can just economically only afford so many hours,” Cooper said. “With the sport being so large as clubs, it’s really hard for [women’s rugby coach] Brian Hamlin and [men’s rugby coach] David Gonzalez to spend enough time to keep up with the Cal-Berkeleys and Dartmouths.”

Cooper said a committee including players, coaches, and alumni will be created to lead the capital campaign this fall. Even if a majority of the money comes from the over-2,000 men’s alumni, the money will be allocated for the rugby program as a whole.

“It’s going to be fifty-fifty,” Cooper said. “This is all for Harvard rugby. We are trying to endow and grow the sport at Harvard for both men and women.”

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