Will the American masses ever take rugby to their hearts? They will if the Rugby Channel and Omnigon have anything to do with it, writes Kyle O'Brien.
There are no shortages of sports in the US. The ‘big four’ of American football, basketball, baseball and hockey are quickly being joined by soccer, which is coming up rapidly on the pro level with Major League Soccer (MLS). Add college sports and seasonal favorites like golf, auto racing and tennis, and one would think there might not be room for another fan base to build in the sports world.
But rugby fans, like the players who play the sport, are a hardy bunch, and they, along with Rugby International Marketing and digital services firm Omnigon, are hoping to take rugby to the American masses, just as the NBA and NFL are making inroads overseas.
The first step for fans happened in April with the launch of the Rugby Channel, which gives devotees in America a home for live and on-demand video coverage of rugby from around the world. Omnigon designed and built the channel, currently available on desktops and mobile apps. The second phase will make its way on advanced platforms this June, giving supporters greater access to the global sport. While there is a fervent American fan base, getting new fans in a saturated sports market is a challenge, but one that Omnigon feels can be overcome.
“If you look at rugby in the US as you may have looked at soccer in the US 20 years ago, it follows a similar growth pattern as a result of grassroots efforts,” says Nick Arcuri, director of sports products for Omnigon.
“Really, the youth and college is the major saturation of rugby players in the US. Getting a professional league is maybe the one to five-year plan, so it’s at least known throughout the US. Just like when MLS launched, it really wasn’t known to anyone other than soccer fans.”
Arcuri feels that a pro rugby league will have the same type of growth as MLS, building its potential so that, in a decade, everyone will know about it. In 20 years, he hopes it will be a legitimate league, making money and getting robust broadcast deals.
Getting wider acceptance will still take major sponsorship, and that’s where Rugby International Marketing comes in. The RIM is the commercial arm of USA Rugby and helps find new revenue streams to support the game. While a major sponsorship deal — as happened with MLS and Adidas early on — has yet to be announced, interest has been shown by a major broadcaster.
“ESPN’s become heavily involved in broadcast. It has Super Rugby starting with broadcast rights with ESPN this year,” says Arcuri.
“I think sponsorships come next. It would probably be a global brand coming in to try to hit that market before it’s matured or at least still growing. There’s been a 33 per cent increase in people playing rugby in the last five years, as of a 2014 survey. If there is success in this pro league, or even success after the Olympics this summer, maybe that’s the time when sponsors swoop in and make an investment.”
Rugby has room to grow. Currently there are 400,000 registered rugby players in the country, and 1.2 million have played the sport at some level, so there is exposure. Having the US national team perform well in a major tournament would boost that exposure.
“The US is number five in the world sevens rankings, and the Olympics is a sevens game,” says Igor Ulis, co-founder and chief executive of Omnigon, referring to the seven-a-side teams. “I think it’s also a little bit easier for the beginner rugby fan to understand the sevens game as opposed to the 15s game. Maybe that will spark interest in the US; that top-down approach where the US team is really powerful and winning matches.”
But the US team has a hill to climb to beat powerhouses like New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, France and Argentina — and they need players at a high-caliber to get them there.
“Hopefully the Olympics sevens and the pro league will gain that exposure in the US and have US talent the youth can look up to. Eventually, that’s when the pipeline gets filled with athletes from the youth programs. There are also a lot of college kids and opportunities for college football players to actually make transitions to rugby,” says Arcuri.
He sees kids who might not make the NFL as potential stars, and perhaps a waning interest in football might make a star switch to rugby, especially as a pro league starts and the athletes get paid. “Maybe they haven’t played rugby their whole life but they are great athletes, and they can learn the game, and play it at a high enough level in the US.”
Garnering an audience will take time, but technology, data and social media will help the sport get there.
“You can go direct to the source and reach a niche customer, where in the past you weren’t able to do that. Technology is going to help. Also, obviously, using social media — being able to expose people to really cool moments where they don’t have to watch a whole match but can understand what rugby is about with a much shorter time span — you get in front of a lot more people that way,” says Ulis.
“We estimate that technology is really going to be the enabler of shortening the timeline for how quickly the sport becomes relevant, and popular amongst the playing audience.”
It will take time for rugby to gain both a sporting and cultural acceptance in America, but there is already a crossover, whereby college football teams are looking to rugby for better tackling techniques, and fans like the non-stop action and rugged nature of the sport. With a solid base, and now a growing online and television audience, rugby may soon be the new soccer in the US.
This article was first published in The Drum's 18 May issue