As usual this type of column has to start with the disclaimer that RUGBY Magazine and RUGBYMag.com are owned by the same people who own USA 7s and the Collegiate Rugby Championship.
RUGBYMag.com covers the CRC invitational tournament intensely, and runs ads supporting that event. We have also run ads supporting USA Rugby events and expect to continue to do so.
I say all this because it needs to be out in the open, so that when I say something about the CRC or USA Rugby's College 7s Championship, you will (I hope) take what I say as impartial, which it is. It is also an opinion, a personal opinion.
Having attended four CRC events and two USA Rugby College 7s events (I missed the first USA Rugby championship, but RUGBYMag writer Pat Clifton did attend) I feel I can safely and fairly compare the two.
And now, it's time.
A Fan Experience.
CRC: Fans show up at a really nice stadium, pay for tickets online, get comfortable seats and varied concessions, and updates on the scoreboard on what's going on, who's winning, and the like.
There's on-field entertainment during down-time in the games, as well.
USA Rugby: There was a table somewhere selling tickets, I think. There were concessions - one kiosk that sold hot dogs, pretzels, popcorn, soda, and coffee - and a nice, small stadium with seats.
The scoreboard didn't tell you who was playing, and the information for fans about who was advancing where was accessible through an app, and on a marker board near the coffee.
(This is my assessment of 2013. The event in 2012 was not as polished.)
CRC: RUGBYMag was there, and so was the local press and, of course, it was on TV (NBC and NBC Sports).
USA Rugby: RUGBYMag was there, and some local press (more an article before the fact), and ESPN showed it on ESPN3 online and later the title matches on ESPNU.
Edge: CRC, but USA Rugby did pretty well here.
CRC: It's totally unfair to rank the weather, right? Well, you get the weather you plan for, to a certain extent. At its worst, the weather at the CRC has been hot and humid, and encountered some thunderstorms. At its best, it was a nice June day with sun and clouds.
USA Rugby: At its worst, the USA Rugby College 7s Championships have been bitingly cold. In Texas, that cold eased as the day wore on. In North Carolina, it never let up. At its best, it was clear, and dry, and when the sun hit you just right, not freezing.
Edge: Was hoping to give on to USA Rugby, but, no - CRC.
CRC: Many exciting games, some won in the last minute, some back-and-forth, interspersed with blowouts that made you cover your eyes.
USA Rugby: Some thrillers and upsets, some won in the last minute, interspersed with massive blowouts.
Edge: It's a tie.
CRC: In the first year, the standard of 7s was poor. Then again, very few college rugby teams were playing 7s at all. In the best games, the play has become very high level. The knockout games included some extremely well-played games.
USA Rugby: The standard at the top end is very solid, but while for many teams it's considered the middle of their 7s fall, it's also a case that several teams really hadn't played a lot of either 7s or 15s. So, likely the standard is better throughout, but at the top end, a little unpolished (this might be because of the cold).
Edge: USA Rugby.
So this is the big contention. Which is the true reflection of the best teams in the country? You could say USA Rugby's it (as Kevin Battle does here) because teams qualified to get to USA Rugby's event. But that's not entirely accurate. Many of the teams in Greensboro received an invitation. Yes, the invitation was based partly on how well those teams did in tournaments they did not win, but still, they were invited.
In addition, the CRC, while an invitational, does have qualification for ACRL and Big Ten, and this coming year, for a local tournament in Philadelphia (which Penn won). So while the USA Rugby event is one you qualify for, they have invited teams, as well, and while the CRC is an event you get invited to, there is some qualification, too.
In addition, the criticism that the CRC has had weak teams at the bottom of the spectrum is fair. Certainly when Army had to pull out due to disciplinary reasons (still being resolved, by the way), the CRC chose to invite Villanova, a local school that wasn't really ready to compete and lost all four of their games, didn't score a point, and gave up an average of 46. With other, more competitive, teams interested in playing, the choice of Villanova highlighted how competitiveness can take a back seat at the CRC.
But, having said that, other teams that were mocked for their expected poor play performed relatively well. It's 7s, there's always a surprise.
So what I want to look at, first of all, is the competitive balance. How many blowouts were there in the two tournaments, and how many lopsided games, and how many close games. Here's what I found:
2013 CRC 46
2013 USA Rugby Men DI College 7s Championships (USAC7 for short) 68
Games won by 50 or more:
CRC 2 (4.3%) USAC7 0 (0%)
Winning Margin 40-49
CRC 3 (6.5%) USAC 7 10 (14.7%)
Winning Margin 30-39
CRC 6 (13%) USAC7 11 (16.2%)
Winning Margin 20-29
CRC 8 (17.4%) USAC7 13 (19.1%)
Close Games - Winning Margin 7 points or fewer (included tie games)
CRC 18 (46%) USAC7 20 (29.4%)
I am actually shocked by this. I was expecting, overall, for the USA Rugby event to have more close games. Wasn't the ongoing narrative that the top teams in the CRC are good, but the bottom teams are very weak? Wasn't the ongoing narrative that USA Rugby's event had many more tournament champions and runners-up, and therefore had more competitive teams?
Not so. Nearly half the CRC games were decided by the value of a try or less, compared to less than one third for the USA Rugby championship. About a quarter of CRC games could be called a blowout (won by 30 or more), while about 31% of USAC7 games were blowouts. And this includes the fact that the CRC had to bring in a team at the last minute. Had Army been able to play, the numbers would have leaned more toward close games.
So on competitive balance, it seems the CRC is better than the USAC7, and certainly not worse.
I think this news goes against conventional wisdom because, in general, those who criticize the CRC focus on the poor teams in the CRC, and the good teams at the USAC7 who don't play in Philadelphia. So, sure, if you traded St. Mary's and Arkansas State for Villanova and Temple, yes, you'd have a better CRC. But if you traded Cal and UCLA for Auburn and Arkansas, you'd have a better USAC7, too.
That, in the end, is the issue. All the best teams are not playing in one place. If we are fortunate enough to see Utah and Army come back from disciplinary suspension. And if we see teams such as Penn State, Kutztown, and Arizona return to 7s once the 15s season is done. Maybe we can start thinking about what would be the best tournament - one that would be highly attractive to rugby fans because of its competitive level, and also one that would attract fans of any sport because of the types of colleges involved.
What if, some day, we had this lineup:
Wild Card (Navy, Texas, San Diego State, Penn State, Arizona State, Cal Poly)
That would be wonderful.
I do think that just going for name colleges at the CRC hasn't brought payoff the tournament expected. I also think that locals will come to see a rugby tournament ... if their team has a prayer of winning a game. But more than anything, I entered into the writing of this article in order to compare the two sincere efforts to promote college 7s in the country, and found, to my surprise, that maybe USA Rugby has made more strides in media awareness than I thought, but at the same time, the myth that the CRC is competitively suspect compared to USA Rugby's event is just that, a myth.