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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.”
“We are all doing what we can to advance the sport,” Cooper said. “The women had the opportunity to go varsity whereas the men did not. Men had the opportunity to contribute to the facilities, the coaching staff, and we are stepping up.”
The moves made recently, and those planned for the upcoming year, may advance the sport, but Cooper said that the improvement of the program will be a long process.
Harvard isn’t the only school undergoing the process of improvement. In fact, college rugby as a whole has undergone major changes.
Currently there are only a handful of varsity programs, but “a whole cadre” of teams is considering varsity status, according to College Director of USA Rugby Rich Cortez.
“We are trying to move the whole competitive structure away from 'just kind of show up whenever you want,' to a more solid structure that allows a team to compete and aim high, but also under safe conditions with proper coaching and proper understanding about caring about the athletes,” Cortez said.
Cortez said that for a team to have success at the varsity level, they need three things: continuity of coaching, a history of success, and a critical mass of athletes.
If enough teams follow Harvard’s lead and become varsity squads, the NCAA would sponsor a national rugby championship. Cortez said he expects the sport to reach that level in due time.
“I think a lot of teams would aspire to be in [Harvard’s] shoes,” Cortez said.
This leadership opportunity played into Harvard’s decision to apply for varsity status, according to MacVicar.
“We are hoping this will set the precedent for other universities to start supporting their teams as well,” MacVicar said. “As an NCAA emerging sport, we really want to see the sport pushed forward across the country.”
—Staff writer Jacob D. H. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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