April this year saw the launch of The Professional Rugby Organization, known as PRO Rugby, America’s first professional rugby league. We spoke to Pro Rugby CEO Doug Schoninger to find out how it went. If you’d like to hear more, Doug will be speaking at World Rugby’s ConfEx 2016 in London next week.
How was PRO Rugby’s inaugural season?
PRO Rugby’s first season was successful in that we answered many of the unknowns: our base level of support, player availability, required infrastructure, etc. There was almost no data for us to use, so our goal for the first year was to learn. We exceed all estimates on attendance, level of play and TV viewing figures.
We really feel our league’s level of play, once we truly start leveraging international players, can now be competitive in a short period of time. The hurdles in rugby are clearly not as high as for soccer, cricket or other sports not traditionally played in American.
What were your main challenges?
There was and is no real structure, with a few exceptions, for rugby in the USA. It’s a challenge for us that did not exist for professionalism in the UK and other rugby nations, with their traditional clubs, stadiums, supporters, etc.
What advantages over traditional sports does rugby have in the USA?
Sports are fragmenting and specializing in the USA and we hope we can take advantage of the erosion of the traditional major sports, as we’re starting to witness in the NFL.
The stadiums, the players and everything else in rugby are more accessible than in football. You can sit close enough to see the players’ individual shapes and sizes and really relate to them.
For the same price as a cheap Major League Soccer game you can get a great rugby seat. For the price of one of my NY Giants match tickets you could get two rugby season tickets.
One of rugby’s other big advantages here is that we are able to make full use of the new media world. Everything we do is shaped around how sports fans now view games – no longer inactive, but active consumption. With full control of our own media rights, we can show all types of video (clips, live streams, etc.) anywhere and let anyone use them.
With relatively few professional American Football teams for such a big country, is there a niche for rugby to exploit?
Yes. There are about 3,500 players from Division 1 colleges eligible for the NFL draft each year and only about 7% of them end up with NFL contracts, so there is a huge pool of extremely athletic, well-trained players that can be tapped. We’re working on projects to convert some of them for specific rugby positions.
What needs to be done to get the club and grassroots level of rugby to a point where it can provide the number of athletes for international success?
The trajectory of the USA national team, though linked to us, doesn’t have to rise at the same rate. We can very quickly get our league to world class standard by leveraging international players and coaches. It will take longer for the national team who are solely reliable on home-grown talent. USA Head Coach John Mitchell’s ability to utilise America’s strengths and style play of play to the best of our advantage will also be key.
Is rugby growing and, if so, how will it continue to grow?
Measurements are hard, but, yes, it’s growing at a huge rate, albeit from a low base. To grow a sport you need to tease out the players from the fans, i.e. most Nike basketball sneaker buyers never touch a basketball. I think rugby will be cultural and then become a big sport, not the other way around. We are working on a few initiatives to facilitate this.
Where does rugby sit socially in the USA?
Rugby is not an upper class sport here and that is good thing. In fact, as it is so cheap to play, it should be marketed as an accessible sport for all. Rugby in the USA is different in that it will be less dependent on professional club and national team activity and more rooted in communities, like other American sports.