“It’s Going to Explode!” The Polar Bear Roars

"It's Going to Explode!" The Polar Bear Roars

If you haven't got your head around the difference Olympic status is going to make to Sevens Rugby over the next five years, it's worth listening to USA captain Matt Hawkins. Tim Maitland reports.


The guy they call "The Polar Bear" peers passionately out from under eyebrows so blonde they're almost white and narrows his arctic-blue eyes earnestly: "Really and truly, the sky's the limit!" he insists.


He's not the first athlete to make such bold claims for his sport, but what makes Matt Hawkins's opinions much, much more than wishful thinking is the perspective he brings. Entering his second season as the captain of the USA team on the HSBC Sevens World Series, he is also the New Business Strategist for advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles. The South African-born 27-year-old understands growth and how to make it happen.


"I think we've hit a whole new fan base. I think Sevens is going to go in a completely different direction now with this Olympic base to it. Sevens has been building steadily over the last 10 or 11 years with the IRB series, but I think between now and 2016... I think it's absolutely going to explode!" he exclaims.


"With HSBC getting involved with a sport like this, they've got global knowledge and awareness right off the bat. It's really exciting. I think if you pull any player to one side and ask them how they feel about the series and how do you feel about the Olympics, I think every guy will have something positive to say."


Certainly the 16 and a half stone, 6' 2" (105 kg/1.88 metre) forward sees nothing but an upward trend for the sport globally, but it's when he starts to talk about the impact Olympic status is having on American Sevens that it gets eye-opening: and this is at a time when the Olympic tap hasn't even been turned on. It's just dripping.


Hawkins says even the initial process - presenting a self-analysis of the status quo and an outline of future plans to the United States Olympic Committee - was a huge positive; like hiring the best analysts and auditors on the planet to pick apart your business and assess its health.


"It's huge for us in the U.S.A. as far as the players go! I think the Union and the people are doing a great job, but I think the USOC has an amazing infrastructure and an amazing system as far as how they work things and how they get to have so many gold medalists: they are the ultimate winners when it comes to sport!" Hawkins explains of an organization that has overseen 1,016 gold medals over 46 summer and winter games.


"For that standard to be applied to us as USA Rugby is huge! It gets us to have to live up to their standards. The people from the USOC that are dealing with us have a high performance section and they've told us bluntly "We're not here to help you; we're here to help you get that gold medal!" That's their goal, that's their aim and that's the directive that has come down from the top," Hawkins said of a process that hasn't even begun to open up the financial support that, he believes, will ultimately help the USA get over the one "speed bump" that has slowed their progress: the fact that they play on per diems against, in many cases, full-time professionals.


"We've been plugged into a machine and it's a great jolt in the right direction and I think it's something, especially for the players, we've been looking for. We've had a lot of people working really hard to keep us on the right track and the last four or five years have seen some big leaps for us - becoming a 'core' team, getting in the top 10, getting to our first Cup final [at the 2010 Adelaide Sevens] last season - all these things have been huge for us, but I think this is the step that's going to take us past that financial barrier and evolve us into something even more than that. They've got the contacts to help drive us towards professionalism, but we're also going to be able to use the USOC and the Olympic link to push our current sponsors and the sponsors on the periphery of USA Rugby to get more involved, dig deeper and push us to that next level."


If you need proof of how that will work, the announcement that NBC - "America's Olympic Network" - will bring the HSBC Sevens World Series to live network television for the first time when it screens the 2011 USA Sevens in Las Vegas should slake your thirst.


If there was a Sports Sponsorship for Dummies, page one would explain this: dollars are directly proportional to exposure.

"Olympic status is going to impact different countries in different ways. There are some where, apart from opening up additional revenue streams, Sevens might not make an enormous difference, but in countries like the USA and China it is like the difference between being on a country road and an eight-lane highway. The potential for the growth of Sevens in the USA is enormous. We're already seeing it unlocking TV coverage that would have been impossible two years ago. As long as the approach is right, it will unlock sponsorship dollars that could only have been dreamed about," explains HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan, whose own sponsorship of the Sevens series was driven by the opportunities Olympic status will unlock in the next five years.


Then there's the direct financial support which will start once the four-year cycle leading up to the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympic Games begins.


Key to that, says Hawkins, is making a splash when Sevens debuts at the 2011 Pan-American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, which in itself is another enormous boost of exposure to a new audience after 80,000 Chinese sports fans got hands-on exposure and countless millions of other newcomers gained a first glimpse on TV at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.


"If we can put the right foot forward then, it will give us a little more power to our position then when we come to 2012 and say this is our budget, this is what we need and out of this there's a possibility of a gold medal because look, we went to the Pan-Am and we won whatever it is; preferably the gold. USA Rugby Union has put a good foot forward and I think the USOC was very pleased with them. The way we've grown over the last few years has shown the USOC we're on an upward trend - each year we've gotten better and better - and if we win a Pan-Am gold they can look at us as a sport that can hopefully be another potential medal on their overall sheet. From what I've heard and seen, the USOC is really high on rugby. They love the sport and have fallen in love with it. They can't believe the excitement and can't believe it hasn't caught on sooner."


One of the reasons that Hawkins is so optimistic is that, while sports like baseball and golf, in terms of participation at least, struggle with the time their game takes up, and others like Cricket have had to totally reinvent themselves to tailor for the tastes of sports fans worldwide, which, it could be argued have changed more in the last 10 years than in the previous hundred, Sevens is tailor-made for the Facebook generation.


"Sevens; it is all there. In one stadium you've got 16 different countries and maybe 20-plus games played each day, outside of that you've got the entertainment that's brought in by the host union, all the activities they have for the kids, the invitational tournaments; there's just so much going on. Fans want to be involved and in Sevens they can be, all the way through," he says.


The growth, he says, could be exponential. The trickle will become a flood.


"The light switch has turned on, but it's going to take a little bit longer for everything to fall into place," Hawkins concludes.

"Sitting five years ago looking at Rugby in the US, asking yourself 'what can we do with the sport and where do we want it to go and how do we get it to be a household name?' the only way you could do it in the US is get it in the Olympics. It's ridiculous [the way]when snowboarding entered the Olympic Games, Shaun White, who was around 19 at the time, won gold [in the halfpipe in Torino 2006] and it just explodes: everybody knows who Shaun White is! It's the same for beach volleyball. The Olympics is special to Americans, really special!"