USA Sevens head coach Mike Friday fears the short form of the game will die unless big businesses are encouraged to become involved in an IPL-style revolution.
With unions in England and Wales having suspended their Sevens programmes and World Series events in Australia and New Zealand scheduled for January cancelled, doubts are being raised over the ability of Sevens to remain relevant on the world stage.
Friday, currently in UK limbo as he awaits clearance to return to America, believes Sevens is on the precipice but says the involvement of big business, as well as global sports betting companies, could salvage a golden future if unions are prepared to cede control.
Friday told The Rugby Paper: “I don’t know whether the decision to scrap the England and Wales sides is strategic to try and force through a Team GB, but I’m gutted for their players because they’re caught in the middle and just want to play at the highest level they can.
“One thing I am sure about is that Sevens still has a purpose, whether it’s at the pinnacle of rugby in a country or part of a nation’s pathway. It’s the only form of the game that can truly represent global populations and give every country an opportunity to be world-class, win an Olympic gold medal or compete at a Sevens World Cup.
“That’s just not possible in 15s so it’s about creating a Sevens model that is sustainable and works not only for the traditional tier one nations but for developing nations in Asia, the Americas and Pacific islands.
“What the current situation highlights is the fact that we need to think differently. We need to recognise that we have a fantastic product but if we don’t innovate, develop it and evolve it to suit the modern markets, it’s going to die, which would be tragic.”
Friday explained: “For me, private partnerships would be an innovative way of thinking about it. What we have in the World Series are ten global cities which are hugely attractive corporately – and business still needs to happen, even in the current Covid-19 climate.
“If countries would consider pulling their Sevens programmes to one side so they’re not conflicted by existing partnerships and we could build a commercial model along the lines of what Team Sky did in cycling, together with what goes on in cricket’s IPL, we’d have a winner.
“If you look at the competition model of Formula One, as another example, there’s lots of scope. Let’s dream and say our Sevens teams were called Amazon USA, Red Bull Team GB or Renault France, you’re creating something that is very attractive and also means we can reposition our Sevens product on digital media broadcasting channels.
“If you think about what firms like Amazon invest in global marketing, Sevens would be a drop in the ocean for them but the returns could be enormous. For £4m-£5m-a-year they’d have a team that operates in the biggest cities in the world and would bring greater exposure, which would allow us to grow Sevens into something big.
“It doesn’t need to compete with 15s, it can complement it – the emergence of Caleb Clarke in New Zealand shows that it can be a powerful part of the pathway.”
Friday believes rugby’s stuffy attitudes to sports betting also need to change.
He said: “Spectators today want fast-moving, impulsive actions in sport with lots of different outcomes and they want to dive in and out – Sevens gives you all of that and more and it’s the perfect vehicle to hit global markets in a vastly crowded sporting landscape.
“Gambling is a huge part of sport now and people love to try and work out the outcomes. It’s massive in football yet rugby barely scratches the surface. Why?
“Nobody had heard of IPL cricket a decade ago yet now it’s one of the biggest gambling markets in world sport. It’s going to take radical thinking in rugby but there are still huge opportunities in Sevens.”
With Sevens at a crossroads within the British Isles, Friday has another radical suggestion.
He adds: “Why not call them the British Lions 7s and just rename it Team GB for the Olympics? The Lions could compete in the World Series, which would then allow England, Wales and Scotland to align with Rugby Europe and tie in with the collegiate seasons.
“That would keep costs down for the RFU, WRU and SRU while the Lions would attract a huge sponsor. There are big possibilities, it just needs open minds.”
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