Full Contact CEO Captain America Mini-Series
Dan Lyle is an American rugby pioneer. He spent years dominating the English Premiership at Bath and Leicester and even won the famed Heineken cup. Mags sits down with the towering giant to discuss his upbringing, a brief foray with the NFL, and what he’s up to now as Director of Rugby at AEG as well as his work as an analyst for NBC Sports.
How Did Dan Get Into Rugby?
Dan never played rugby in college, in fact, he played football at the Virginia Military institute. Not long after he graduated and was living in DC, Dan’s goal was to make an NFL team as a Tight End. He was trying out for the then-Washington Football team and back then there were no high-performance training facilities so to stay in shape he joined the Washington Rugby Club.
Needless to say as an all-around athlete, Dan at adapted pretty quickly to the sport. He sees soccer and basketball as more akin to rugby than football.
Living Internationally and Military Upbringing
Dan grew up in a military family and lived in several other countries as well as 13 different places before the age of 18.
“We lived in Germany for five years which really allowed me to understand what America looked like from an outside perspective.”
Dan attributes that upbringing to adapting to rugby so quickly and being able to play abroad.
Dan had the opportunity to play Sevens with the Washington Rugby Club and it allowed his true raw athleticism to come out.
It was Jack Clark and Ed Schram that first noticed Dan at the Conshohocken 7s Tournament.
“I was palming people off with the ball in my hand, rather than an open hand.”
Not too long after Dan was off on 7s tours to Toulon, Taiwan, and Kuala Lumpur. Then within a year, Dan was earning his first cap for the Eagles 15s team at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, against Ireland in 1994. Not a bad place to represent your country for the first time.
To continue his success with Rugby Dan had to continuously play which meant he had to leave the East Coast seasons behind and head west to first Aspen which then was the cradle of USA rugby and then onto California where he played for OMBAC in San Diego.
As rugby started to finally turn professional, at least the international game. Dan was scouted by David Jenkins who represented Bath. Bath Rugby of course was an absolute powerhouse in the 90s.
As soon as he was done with the tour which happened to Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong, he was on a train to Bath from London to meet with the club to discuss a half-year contract with the potential to turn into more good performances.
Within all of this happening the Minnesota Vikings invited Dan out to Minneapolis to work out. Dan says it was the best workout he’s ever had. “I caught every pass, I ran faster than I’ve ever run, and they offered me a contract.”
Dan still has that check on the wall in his office.
Going from Amateur to Professional
In 1995, on the back of one of the most memorable Rugby World Cups to ever exist, the sport turned professional.
Dan found himself playing for a club in a relatively small city in a newly established professional league. Uniquely he was one of the very few, if not only, players that had played as a professional athlete before.
“I knew how to study film and do my playbook and show up on time, and do the weights, and speak in front of people about the defensive structure, what we’re going to do on the field All of those things that, you know, the professionals have to learn.”
England legend Jason Robinson was also the other professional on the team. Rugby League had been professional far before Union came into the fold.
The reality of the early days of professionalism was that “you had PE teachers becoming coaches, CEOs of milk product companies and greeting cards, companies becoming owners and, you know, and, and cricket and soccer guys…physios that had never been professional that was coming out of hospitals, facilities that were just incredibly poor.”
All of these owners were putting their own money into these clubs, they were incredibly entrepreneurial but it was a sink-or-swim mentality. There are about 8 clubs that Dan played in the early years of the Premiership that don’t even exist at that level anymore.
Bath’s 98 Heineken Cup Team
Bath had always been a rugby club powerhouse. The talent was there, the facility was there, and the culture was there.
“We kinda knew that it was ours to take.”
The spine of that team was made up of English players who would go on to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
“We played in Bordeaux against Brive and stayed at the Chateaux Saint Emilion one of the top wine vendors in the world We end up winning it and we go back and there’s a couple of Michelin star chefs there at 2:00 AM, cooking omelets and popping bottles of the stuff!”
How MLR and Grass Roots Rugby Can Fit Into the American Sports Model
American sports have always followed a traditional path. You start playing in after-school programs or on weekends, you join your varsity team, and then find yourself playing in college in hopes you’ll make it professional.
“So I’ve said that loud and clear to a lot of people that MLR was the missing ingredient for the American sports complex, it’s entrepreneurial driven, it fits then to the pro model. And then sitting next to that is your Olympic slash international competition.
The simplicity of it all is that we need to do a better job or more efficient job at recruiting and retaining. And that’s a quality and quantity conversation that everybody can look at and contribute to.”
As Dan and Mags, both put it. In order for rugby to really take off and become the popular sport that it deserves to be, we need to have it in the community, at schools, at a local YMCA and pick up touch rugby sessions at the local parks.
“We have to institutionalize the sport to attract a bigger funnel of talent.”
Dan helped develop the USA Sevens tour stop and tournament. The program has propelled USA rugby into the spotlight in recent years.
“Being a part of the World Series Tour allows us to have a mini Olympic Games which is designed for fans and athletes and it creates something memorable every year.”
The issue is, Dan claims, that it can’t be a standalone event. It needs partners because the remainder of the US rugby calendar is undefined. There needs to be other Rugby events that can build momentum for the sport.
‘We might be the largest sports entertainment company on the planet. You know, we have music and sports facilities, and 25 stadiums in the US. We have stadiums in Australia, South America, and the new Hong Kong stadium that is being built.”
AEG owns teams like the LA Kings, and LA Galaxy.
Dan’s bosses kept running into rugby along the way and they realized there was potential there. Whether it be broadcast rights, sponsorship as well as the fact that it’s an international sport.
“We see soccer is on a scale that it’s just beyond compare in a lot of ways, but we see it can have a similar trajectory as soccer in America If done the right way and perhaps more quickly, because we’re going to learn the lessons of MLS, the continued lessons of MLS, but also just that gap between.”
Broadcasting With NBC Sports
As most US rugby fans will know, Dan is a rugby analyst for NBC sports. You’ll find him covering the Six Nations and The Premiership alongside Alex Corbisiero.
We wanted to know what that experience is like for him and what’s the future of live sports on TV with all these streaming services?
“Consumption of media is incredibly easy right now. I have two screens in front of me, an Ipad and my phone.”
However, it’s a double-edged sword especially when it comes to rugby in the US. You need to balance value and awareness. It’s great to have all these US-based rugby games available on online platforms, but are you reaching a wider audience?
USA Soccer and Fifa did what they needed to do to grow Soccer in the US and leverage the World Cup Rights in order to facilitate a broader media play for domestic rights in America.
MLR realized they needed to start getting more US players involved with the league that would end up going to the National Team and would then appear on the world stage at a World Cup.
Have you ever bathed in an actual Roman Bath?
Dan got married at the Roman Baths but has not jumped in the actual baths.
The scariest player he’s gone up against?
Sebastien Chabal actually gave him a concussion. But Richard Hill was a ferocious competitor.
Dan also thinks the US National Team should play with the eagle on their chest.
If Dan were running the Free Jacks what would he focus on?
How do you balance a playing squad, the culture of keeping that team together and locked in, with acquiring fans and partners?