America’s First Pro Rugby League Wants to Convince Millennials It’s the Sport for Them

'New attracts young,' CEO says

While it's massively popular in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, rugby is still a tiny blip on the football-obsessed American sports radar. But Doug Schoninger, CEO of the Professional Rugby Organization, North America's first professional rugby league, sees that as an advantage. The league, which debuts April 17, is targeting millennials by positioning itself as a hip, alternative sports option.

"We're new, we're disruptive, and it differentiates us from most of the sports out there," Schoninger told Adweek. "That's going to be really welcome to the younger millennial group, the 28 and under demographic, who haven't attached themselves to traditional sports. New usually attracts young. It's the fastest growing team sport in America on the youth level. It's a small base, but that's OK. Amazon started small, too."

To promote Pro Rugby's launch, the league is sticking primarily to social media. Since November, it's posted videos on its social channels that include highlights from team tryouts and interviews with coaches and players, including one that explains how the sport differs from American football. The league also launched Facebook pages for its five teams, which are based in San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Sacramento, Calif., and Obetz, Ohio. "The ubiquity of social allows rugby to be built from the ground up and for it to be community based," Tom Lyons, managing director at HYFN, the agency that developed Pro Rugby's digital strategy, told Adweek. "Social's ability to drive fan interest and fan engagement and fan sharing will help make the league successful." 

The league is planning more videos throughout the season that tell players' stories, which are decidedly less glamorous than those of pro athletes in other sports. "These players didn't come in for money—they came in for passion of the game," Schoninger said. "They all have other jobs because they have to pay the bills. Some own restaurants; some are musicians. There's a great story with all of these guys, and that's part of the attraction of the sport." 

In a bid to encourage fan involvement, the league left its teams unnamed and will ask fans to submit suggestions online throughout the 12-game season. "The greatest thing about rugby is the passion of the fans, so we wanted to give fans ownership on a local level," Schoninger explained. "The goal for the first year is to build the brand of American rugby. The world, at large, has been waiting for this for a long time. They refer to us as the sleeping giant. International fans are feeling it already—I get calls from travel agents in Australia who want to put packages together to see our games. They get that this is the beginning of something. Now, we have to convince the American public of that and get butts in seats, locally."

To do so, Pro Rugby runs local Facebook ads and works with USA Rugby—the sport's governing body overseeing four national teams in the U.S.—to promote the game, sharing email lists and doing cross-promotion on USA Rugby's Facebook page. "About 80 percent of their national team players are on our payroll, so we have a close relationship," Schoninger said. "We have a shared vision, and they've been very helpful in promoting us." The league's games will air on local TV in half of the markets with all games streaming online.

Pro Rugby's goal is to double its number of teams by next season, Schoninger said. "It's a subculture, but hopefully it will become a bigger culture," he said. "It would be next to impossible to do it without social media. We have to tell people that this is the sport for them – they just don't know it yet."

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