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Courting Millennials, Rugby Enters U.S. Sports World with Strong Digital Game Plan

6 Apr, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Sport Will Need to Silence Skeptics Who Don’t Believe it Represents a Viable Market

The Pro Rugby Organization opens play in the U.S. this month, and organizers want to kick the door down.

According to an article in MediaPost, the league has five teams (in San Francisco, Sacramento, San Diego, Denver and Ohio). As yet, the teams are unnamed with the league leaving that up to fans as a way to build awareness for the league and its initial 12-game season, which ends in July. (Let's just hope it turns out better than this naming contest.)

PRO is a professional sports league and is the first competition to be sanctioned by USA Rugby and World Rugby, allowing it to sign international players.

Even though 2016 will mark the Olympic debut of rugby sevens, much of the U.S. has remained largely unaware of the sport, outside of its college presence. And for that reason, organizers know the league has to hit the ground running and gather momentum, not lose it, in time for the Olympics in August. “Time is of the essence for rugby entrepreneurs,” states an article in Sports Business Journal that discussed the investment made by league owners. “They’re counting on the sport’s return to the Olympics in August to catalyze fan interest, and leagues not able to advertise a real presence by then will risk missing the narrow window of Olympic-generated hype.”

The sport has its cadre of skeptics. An article in The Atlantic noted that despite the fact that it is the second most popular sport in the world (soccer being the first), “rugby’s true final frontier and television’s biggest prize isn’t the South Pole, but the United States.”

There’s no lack of worldwide interest, but the sport has not resonated with the widespread U.S. population the way others have. Whether its inclusion in the Olympics – and the presence of the PRO – will bolster its popularity remains to be seen.

For any sport to become successful, it needs to be embraced at the youth level. And here, rugby faces an uphill battle in acceptance with parents, since it’s played without pads, helmets or any other type of protective gear.

So in this case, PRO is going to bypass the youth market and go straight for the Millennials.

"We're new, we're disruptive, and it differentiates us from most of the sports out there," Doug Schoninger, CEO, told Adweek in a recent article. "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 a small base, but that's OK. Amazon started small, too."

Other disruptive businesses that resonate with Millennials include Uber and Airbnb – so don’t dismiss Schoninger’s theory out of hand.

And in keeping with the need to reach this market, PRO is focusing its efforts on social media. Digital ad agency HYFN has been retained to promote the league. So far, HYFN has developed the digital strategy, positioning and editorial calendar. The agency also developed and is executing the paid social-media strategy. 

“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, told Adweek. "Social's ability to drive fan interest and fan engagement and fan sharing will help make the league successful." 

The campaign will use different channels for different types of content and its corresponding goals. The league’s website, for instance, will be informational, hosting the season’s schedule, ticket sales, merchandise, as well as team and player profiles.  

The league’s Facebook page will serve as a hub for players and fans to share stories, and photos. "This where the most lifestyle content will live," says the agency. And it will use Twitter and Instagram for more real-time content distribution and sharing. 

Efforts to create awareness for the league began late last year.  Since November 1, the campaign has generated 19,400 organic page likes with an average daily organic reach of 32,912. The first video posted on the site reached 255,200 people and received 1,700 likes according to the agency. The first video racked up 100,000 views within three days of its debut.  

These clicks have increased over the past month. There have been 89,100 video views, 3,100 organic likes, and an average of 167 shares per day.

Since November, HYFN has posted videos on PRO’s social channels, showing 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 all five teams.

"The goal for the first year is to build the brand of American rugby,” Schoninger explained to Adweek. “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."

At the moment, the website for the league is a shell, with very little information – although it does offer a way to buy jerseys for each team.

The stated goal of PRO is to double its number of teams by next season, Schoninger said. "It's a subculture, but hopefully it will become a bigger culture. 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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