Playing rugby is about to become a full-time job.
With rugby returning to the Olympic program in 2016, USA Rugby and the U.S. Olympic Committee will begin offering player contracts in January. The contracts will provide monthly stipends, meals and full-time coaching at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., as well as access to the OTC's high-performance center, to 15 men and eight women competing in rugby sevens.
Eventually, USA Rugby would like to have 20 players on both the men's and women's teams in full-time residency.
"We think it's game-changing for us," USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville said. "Most of our teams are playing against teams globally who are all full-time rugby players. We had to move toward that to be competitive and compete and move up the world rankings."
The U.S. currently does the best it can with part-time players, relying on athletes to train on their own and gathering as a team for camps before big tournaments. Now that rugby is going to be an Olympic sport, however, the stakes are higher and the Americans risked falling even further behind if they didn't make some changes.
Results at the Dubai Sevens earlier this month reinforced that perspective.
In years past, the American women would have been competitive with Canada. But Melville said the Canadians upgraded their training program last year, and they routed the U.S. in the semifinals on the way to winning the tournament title.
"The initial impact will be in the fitness of players. They'll be stronger and fitter," Melville said. "The other thing is skill development and that will be really important. And training together gives us more consistency. It's a combination of things. It will make a big difference for us."
Melville declined to say how much the contracts will be worth, saying only that "it's not very much."
"It wouldn't compare favorably to a lot of nations around the world," he said. "But it will be an opportunity for our players to be more competitive and, hopefully, we can raise more money from sponsors."
With athletes beginning full-time residency in January, Melville said it will probably take about a year to see results. But the goal is the Rio Olympics, still more than four years away.
"It's a step forward," Melville said.