Is Rugby The New Soccer For U.S. Fans, Marketers?

On TV, "Orange is the New Black."

In the U.S., rugby may be the new soccer.

Rugby is following a trajectory in the U.S. similar to that of soccer. Fanatically popular worldwide, with a World Cup to decide a true global champion and an array of international events fueled by athleticism and patriotism, soccer over the past decades has in the U.S. moved from being a niche, ethnically centric sport to one embraced by a broad palette of fans and marketing partners.

Likewise, the Rugby World Cup is played every four years, most recently in 2011 with 20 nations competing in New Zealand. The competition drew a global audience of some 4 billion, according to Rugby World Cup officials. (The 2015 World Cup is scheduled for England, with global partners that include MasterCard, Heineken, Emirates Airline, Land Rover and DHL.)

In 2009, the International Olympic Committee voted to include Rugby Sevens (seven players per side) in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, marking the sport's first Olympic appearance since 1924, when Rugby Union 15s was played. In fact, the U.S. is the two-time defending Olympic champs, having won rugby gold in 1920 (Belgium) and 1924 (Paris).

The sport dates back to the 1830s when students at Rugby School (Warwickshire, England), picked up a ball and began to scrum on campus. It played a major role in world history when the 1995 Rugby World Cup final was staged in South Africa between the host's national team and the iconic New Zealand National Team, the All Blacks, orchestrated by then South Africa president Nelson Mandela to help repair his country following decades of apartheid.

Although there is no pro rugby league in the U.S. akin to Major League Soccer, USA Rugby was established in 1975 as the governing body in America, including the national men's and women's teams. A member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, it claims more than 100,000 active participants, with more than 29,000 in college and 35,000 at the senior club level.

Companies are taking notice of the U.S. growth. In 2012, global insurance firm AIG began to devote time, energy and resources to building the sport domestically and internationally, signing multi-year deals with USA Rugby as well as the New Zealand Rugby Union, among other alliances.

Last week, DHL become the official presenting sponsor of USA Rugby. DHL will also be the official express delivery and logistics provider for a match this Saturday (Nov. 1) between the U.S. Men's National Team, aka the Eagles, and the All Blacks, being presented by AIG. 

More than 30,000 tickets were sold for the game in Chicago's Soldier FIeld within days of being announced. The 61,500-seat venue has since been sold-out, making the match by some 45,000 fans the highest-attended international rugby union match in the U.S.

It will be shown live by NBC, which is using the event as part of a platform to talk about its exclusive coverage of the 2016 Summer Games.

NBC Sports Group is also the exclusive home of USA Sevens Vegas (the largest rugby competition in North America) and the Collegiate Rugby Championship.

"The game in Chicago could, arguably, be the biggest opportunity to wake up the U.S. audience and introduce them to the sport," said Daniel Glantz, who oversees global sponsorships for AIG. "The fact that NBC is airing this match nationally, on a Saturday, right in the middle of college football, is historic. It is a testament to where they see the game going."

According to DHL Express U.S. CEO Mike Parra, "As one of the world’s fastest growing sports, rugby’s popularity on the global stage is huge and continues to grow in the U.S.”

Other USA Rugby partners include Emirates Airline, Gatorade and sports apparel brand BLK.

"We are a little bit behind where MLS has taken the game in the U.S., maybe 15 years," said Glantz, an attorney who worked in the NBA's legal department before joining AIG in 2006. "But there is a growing market. It's quite impressive."

According to Glantz, the rugby demographic is 50-50 male-to-female. AIG is seeing fans from such sports as hockey, golf, yachting, the English Premier League and Formula 1 racing. "I also think that (NFL) fans would easily cross over and have an appreciation for the sport once they really see it. Our guess it that we will start to see converts soon."

Not by coincidence, AIG is using rugby as part of a strategy to rejuvenate its status on the world stage following the financial crisis that led to a $182 billion federal bailout in 2008.

"People get it. AIG had its challenges recently in the U.S.," said Glantz. "We have not only made a comeback, we have paid back the government plus a profit. We are forward-looking. With rugby, we are ahead of the trend. Not just an idol sponsor, but really engaging with the properties and having a real partnership."

1 comment about "Is Rugby The New Soccer For U.S. Fans, Marketers?".
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  1. Dan Skinner from ConAgra Foods, October 29, 2014 at 9:48 a.m.

    One of the major factors in soccer's US growth was the rise of youth leagues beginning in the early '80s. Seems unlikely that rugby would be able to build the same type of grassroots momentum here.

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