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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Guest Editorial: Fan Enthusiasm & Concerns For PRO Rugby

By Brian Wood

On November 9, 2015 rugby fans in North America, particularly in the United States, rejoiced at the announcement that PRO Rugby was to be launched with the support of the sport’s national governing bodies World Rugby and USA Rugby. Since the announcement, there has been identifiable progress and setbacks. The league is now under ten weeks away from its inaugural games scheduled for April 17, 2016. Readers should proceed with the following caveat from the outset: Discussion, analysis and generalizations are constrained to the limited publicly available information.

Fans’ Excitement

Growing the Game – A central component to PRO Rugby’s mission statement is the goal of “growing the game”. There are two aspects to growing the sport of rugby domestically: 1. Participation, and 2. Fan base. Such categorization is not mutually exclusive. In other words, individuals that are participants are also fans, however the reverse is not necessarily true.

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Properly executed, America’s rugby fan base should broaden with suitable broadcast availability. This would obviously be considered a major achievement for the league since increased audience size creates greater revenue opportunities via sponsorship, advertising and ticket demand. Simultaneously, a proliferating fan base may also increase awareness of regional opportunities to participate as an athlete, coach, referee, administrator or another capacity. A final facet related to growing the game is the promise of quality matches in a high performance environment. In time, PRO Rugby may reach the same competitive caliber as professional foreign leagues.

Sunday Scheduling – The overwhelming majority of competitions at the club level and below are played on Saturdays. Sunday matches permit athletes to participate with their club team each week while also being able to consume PRO Rugby games as attending fans or viewers streaming the games. This demonstrates prudent foresight and strategic planning by PRO Rugby.

Player Prominence: The Next “Poster Player” – Growing the game will include promoting a new poster player for the domestic league. There is a need to emphasize the previous wording “domestic league”.

It may be suggested that casual rugby fans can transition into committed fans when they have a specific player they identify with. For example, until relatively recently, sevens was secondary to fifteens in the United States. This has changed for numerous reasons including, but not limited to: World Rugby’s Sevens Circuit, inclusion in the Olympic Games, resource allocation, etc. While the aforementioned elements are critically important, the ability of a fan to identify or associate with a player is a factor often omitted in discussion. The U.S.A. men’s sevens program was buoyed by the stardom of Zack Test. A number of casual sevens fans followed Test’s rise on the global stage and transitioned into loyal sevens fans. Today the program has Carlin Isles, Perry Baker, Danny Barrett and other identifiable players providing further growth.

PRO Rugby will not have the likes of AJ MacGinty, Titi Lamositele or Samu Manoa as their poster players since they compete in overseas leagues. This means a yet to be determined domestic player shall have the honor/responsibility of being the name and face of the new U.S. based league. Selecting this player will be an important and interesting strategic choice that the American rugby public will closely follow.

Player Identification – Rugby veterans often vent about real and/or perceived “politics”. PRO Rugby has done an admirable job of attempting to recognize professional caliber players beyond those previously identified through USA Rugby’s systems and pathways. Thus far two player combines have taken place, but both were in California. Future combine opportunities are not currently posted on PRO Rugby’s website nor their Facebook page. It should be noted, however, Tiger Rugby has announced camps in Dallas, TX and Greensboro, NC on February 14 and PRO Rugby “will be scouting for talent”.

Intimate Stadiums – The use of appropriately sized stadiums provides a multitude of favorable outcomes. The most prominent benefit may be an increased sense of connection to the players, team and/or league. This degree of closeness is a fundamental component to cultivating fan loyalty, support and developing positive community relations.

Fans’ Concerns

Follow Through – On January 22, 2016, via a Facebook post, PRO Rugby backpedaled from its November announcement of a six team league and modified the structure to five. Some would argue that facility agreements are a fundamental aspect of the planning process which should have been finalized before a formal league announcement citing a specific quantity of teams. The same social media communication, pledged: The remaining non-western based teams will be announced in the coming week.” Unfortunately the announcement was unfulfilled in the time period as promised. This left fans apprehensive whether the league would come to fruition. Fans understand the complexities and variables associated with this venture, but rugby community’s restlessness was justifiable when such representations were made. Today the additional team locations are being provided to ease the fans’ anxiety.

Media – PRO Rugby’s Facebook update on January 22, 2016 asserted “Information on how each game will be broadcasted will be announced shortly.” Broadcast information still has not been provided and is anxiously anticipated. There has been preliminary indication that matches will be available online. The inherent limiting factor here is that individuals seeking out and viewing this channel/site are already established fans of the sport. While this is excellent news for targeting specific sponsors within a niche rugby demographic, logic suggests that few “average Joes” will stumble upon the online media, view the matches and be converted to fans.

Revenue – Professional sport leagues are largely sustained by the following primary revenue streams: media/broadcast rights, ticketing, sponsorship, advertising, merchandising and licensing. Every single sport franchise works tirelessly to sell season ticket packages far in advance. A mere ten weeks out from the league’s launch, ticketing information is still unavailable through PRO Rugby’s website, social media or the presently announced stadiums. Publicly available information suggests teams’ names, colors and logos are not finalized for merchandising. The organization will certainly protect its intellectual properties. Accordingly, registering their marks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office must also occur if not already in progress.

Professional League with Amateur Website Content and Communication – Examine the official websites of the National Football League, Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball or any other professional league’s site. Without exception the first thing the fans see is a current news feed. It is acknowledged that as a start-up league news may be sporadic or limited until kickoff. Yet the sole reliance on social media to disseminate official news or updates casts the organization in an amateur light. Sponsors expect internet traffic from the league’s/teams’ websites to link to their company’s site and generate sales. Fans expect current, relevant and engaging content. Polishing the most publicly visible aspect of the organization would be an easy fix.

Domestic Club, College, High School National Championships – It is obvious that the quantity of dedicated rugby fans in the country is relatively small. These fans can only consume (i.e., physically attend or view via media broadcast) a limited number of competitions in a given weekend. In the month of May, fans’ attention will be split between high school, college, club national championships and PRO Rugby’s matches. Perhaps this is an unavoidable conflict unless one party or the other moves their season which is an entirely different discussion and debate.

Locations – California is the primary beneficiary of PRO Rugby due to venues that sufficiently fit the organization’s size/capacity requirements, conformity to governing body mandates (i.e. approved playing surfaces/turf) and climate considerations. At the end of the day, most individuals in the rugby community understand these factors and PRO Rugby’s rationale in placing three teams in a single geographic region. With that said, justifiable frustration has been voiced that similar viable options were not pre-identified in other locales prior to announcing the league. If the organization can be sustained past the initial year(s), team expansion (or perhaps relocation) into Canadian and other U.S. markets may occur per PRO Rugby plans.

Unaddressed Areas – A players’ association is needed to ensure the best interests and welfare of the athletes are represented. The function of organizing this entity lies with the laborers (i.e., players) and not ownership or the league. While the lack of a players’ association will not adversely impact the launch of the league, it must be acknowledged that one will be forthcoming. Conversely, there is an immediate and undeniable need for a solid Players’ Personal Conduct Policy. Administrators only need to look at the recent troubles of the National Football League in their handling of off-the-field issues and the Commissioner’s authority.

Summary

Rugby participants and fans are hungry for the launch of a professional domestic competition. PRO Rugby’s forethought and deliberate planning is evident in many aspects. The fans’ enthusiasm is tempered by details that have yet to be disclosed through the organization’s diligence.

4 comments:

  1. Bravo! Love the article.
    I would like to bring out a concern that wasn't mentioned, and one that will be important in growing the sport. I'm talking about player health and safety.

    Concussions are a massive hit for the NFL. PRO Rugby could get ahead of this issue by working with different research programs to build concussion protocols into the league.

    Look at how the Saracens partnered with a research program to monitor head impacts. In the USA there is a 'anti-concussion collar' (Bailes et al) that could be implemented to start the league out correctly.

    Parents who are looking for alternatives to football could choose rugby if USARugby and PRO Rugby are seen to aggressively address this issue in this sport.

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  2. Community participation
    In European rugby (Pro 12, etc) you see children involved in professional games, from running with the pro players at their introduction, to playing mini-games at half-time.

    This ensures that children are engaged and bring their parents and siblings to games.

    Active involvement of youth leagues and school teams, kicking contests, etc. is essential to making the games a must-go-to local event.

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  3. Player welfare would be high on my list of priorities including:
    A doctor present at all games to ensure strict adherence to concussion protocol and be on call for training sessions
    Ambulance service at all games and on call for training sessions
    Physical therapists at all games and training
    Group PPO health care which will guarantee access to first class specialists without eating away most of the "salaries"
    As a "PRO" league the above should be a given.
    Otherwise all credence to the organizers in taking the initiative to offer pro rugby to the USA. There will be bumps in the road, naysayers lurking behind their shields of negativity and a good sprinkling of the "it won't work because we have never tried it" brigade waiting for the opportunity to yell "I told you so," at the slightest sign of the league running into trouble. But the hardest step on any journey is the first one, one which the status quo brigade will never take, so my attitude is good luck to all involved, play entertaining rugby (please stay away from 6 Nations rugby, the best sleeping pill known to mankind) and keep the tickets affordable for families please........

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  4. Great editorial. Pro rugby will make multiple mistakes as they get going. Their success initially will not be what they get right out the gate, but rather how fast they learn from their errors. Even though pro rugby is not on my neck of the woods, here is one one former participant and now fan that is eagerly anticipating this tournament.

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