By Barry Janoff
October 30, 2014: On Saturday, Nov. 1, some 61,500 people will shake the foundation of Soldier Field in Chicago, home of the NFL's Bears. But not to see the Bears.
That day, the U.S. Men's National Rugby Team, aka the Eagles, will face the New Zealand National Rugby Team, best known as the All Blacks and as famous and iconic as Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees.
The match is being presented by global insurance firm AIG and airing live on NBC Sports Network, which will use the event as a catalyst to support its coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics and in particular the return of rugby as an Olympic sport.
Rugby dates back to the 1830s when students at Rugby School (Warwickshire, England), picked up a ball and began to scrum on campus.
Like soccer, rugby has a tremendous dedicated following. The 2011 Rugby World Cup, played in New Zealand, attracted some four billion TV viewers worldwide, according to the International Rugby Board, the sport's overseeing governing body. The 2015 Rugby World Cup, for which the U.S. has qualified, will be played in England.
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. That marks 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).
Although there is no pro rugby league in the U.S., 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, AIG signed multi-year deals with USA Rugby as well as the New Zealand Rugby Union, among other alliances.
Earlier this month, DHL became the official presenting sponsor of USA Rugby. DHL will also be the official express delivery and logistics provider for the match in Chicago against the All Blacks.
Other marketing partners for the Nov. 1 match include Emirates Airline, Gatorade and athletic sportswear company BLK.
The attendance of 61,500 in Soldier Field will make it by some 45,000 fans the highest-attended international rugby union match in the U.S.
Even before announcers start to talk about scrums, hookers, lineouts, mauls and rucks, viewers will be treated to something completely different: The haka, a traditional Māori dance performed by the All Blacks, which serves as a warrior-entering-battle challenge to the opposing team.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Daniel Glantz, AIG’s global head of sponsorship, about the potential growth for rugby in the U.S. regarding fan, media and marketing support.
NYSportsJournalism.com: I'm sure you've heard this before: People know rugby but don't know ABOUT rugby. Why rugby?
Daniel Glantz: (Laughs.) I hear that a lot. We even put that into a TV spot we put that together as part of marketing we did for the match, where a voiceover says, 'It doesn't matter if you don't know rugby. Rugby knows you.' We are finding mixed reactions. Certainly the initial uptake for ticket sales were from the passionate fans. There is a large niche audience in U.S. communities. Rugby is generally known as a club sport in colleges. But it is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. There is that element, particularly in the U.S.,where AIG decided early on that we have to include education as part of our promotion.
NYSJ: Can rugby follow the path of soccer, which had its core followers in the U.S. and took time to ramp up but now hot with fans, marketers, stadiums, TV?
DG: Absolutely. We are a little bit behind where Major League Soccer has taken the game, maybe 15 years. But there is a market.
NYSJ: Is there growth here on the grass-roots level?
DG: That is very important to us. We have an infographic series, we do a lot of tutorials, videos and materials. We promote our USA Rugby sponsorship with the Rookie Rugby program, which is the youth side. But, to your point, I never picked up a rugby ball until I started to negotiate the USA and New Zealand rugby deal. It's not in the schools, or wasn't in the schools. So we said that, for this particular market, which is potentially an enormous one, we have educate kids as well as adults. It's about driving home the fundamentals of the game. In New Zealand, it's part of the culture. There are three-year-olds playing on rugby teams, similar to what we have in PAL soccer and baseball.
NYSJ: Is there talk of a pro rugby league here?
DG: Yes. We are not quite there because there is no profession rugby league in the U.S. There has been talk about developing a pro league around Sevens with ten minute quarters, national teams, because right now Sevens is structured more for the tournament style of play. But that's only a matter of time.
NYSJ: What demographics are you attracting and/or targeting as far as age and fans from sports in the U.S.?
DG: It skews to a higher, more mature demographic. Sophisticated, well-educated, high household net worth and income. Male dominated. But that being said, rugby has a much stronger diverse audience than American football. When you go to a rugby game, the make-up is traditionally 50-50 male-to-female. In the NFL, it's predominantly male (NFL research shows that it is about 60-40 male-to-female in stadiums). We found that rugby has a nice crossover with other niche sports as well as high net worth, well-educated sports, so hockey fans are definitely attracted as is the C-suite (top executive) audience. The golf audience. EPL (English Premier League), particularly in the U.S. market. And also other sports: yachting, America's Cup, F1 are traditionally strong followers of rugby. I also happen to think that fans of American football would easily cross over and have an appreciation for the sport once they really see it. Our guess is that we will start to see converts soon.
NYSJ: Are you finding that people not familiar with rugby are understanding the different teams of Sevens and 15s?
DG: No question that Sevens is easier to understand. And that's the challenge right now to promote rugby in a developing market such as the U.S. NBC supports the Sevens program. They support the Olympics, where Sevens will be played in 2016. It's easier to assemble a team of seven players, Sevens is more attractive to broadcasters from an advertising perspective. Seven squads are quick, tournament-style games. We are see in that Sevens is definitely easier to learn. From my standpoint, as an outsider, there is more of an appreciation of and respect for the game and there is a lot more strategy.
"It's challenging to promote a game in the U.S. when people don't understand the game or are not convinced that it's safe. Rugby, in fact, it isn't a violent sport."
NYSJ: Rugby is a physical game. Are organizers, teams and players dealing with the same issues as NFL re concussions, PEDs, etc.
DG: It's challenging to promote a game in the U.S. when people don't understand the game or are not convinced that it's safe. Rugby could be viewed as a violent sport when, in fact, it isn't. That's been a huge focus for us in promoting rugby and the sport in the U.S. There are reasons why there are fewer injuries and issues in rugby: Because of the rules that are in place, the IRB protocols regarding concussions and just because of the technique. Another theory is that because they are not wearing any equipment, they don't have helmets and other equipment to use as weapons. Safety is very important and an issue that we have been heavily promoting through a safety awards program and education. It is something that we are addressing for the sport to grow.
NYSJ: NBC Sports Network will be airing the Chicago game, and they also are the Olympic network. Do you see them using the Chicago event as a springboard to promote rugby in the 2016 Summer Games to fans in America?
DG: This game could, arguably, be the biggest opportunity to wake up the U.S. audience and introduce them to the game. I'm sure that NBC will during the telecast at least be referencing the fact that rugby is being re-introduced to the Olympics. I do think that NBC is going to help the sport develop specifically as it relates to being re-introduced to the Olympics. NBC has been a great partner. The fact that they are airing this match nationally is historic .I believe it will be the first time outside of the Rugby World Cup that a 15s-style game will be aired nationally. And it will be on a Saturday, right in the middle of college football. That is a testament to where they see the game growing. We expect to get the largest audience ever for rugby. This will really help to propel the game, along with our Rookie Rugby program.
NYSJ: There is another game in New York at the end of November, so what is AIG's role there?
DG: The New York Rugby Club is the oldest rugby club in the country. We have a good relationship with them. They host the largest international Sevens tournament in the U.S., traditionally held over Thanksgiving Weekend, outside of the Rugby Sevens World Series in Las Vegas. We came aboard with them least year, and it's another way for us to give back to the rugby community.
NYSJ: How big is social media to rugby's growth?
DG: Social media is definitely a driver in getting our message, getting the word out about the game and growing the sport. All Blacks has three million follows on Facebook. So it is helping not only with marketing and promotion, but to build the community.
NYSJ: Are there any breakout stars who would attract Madison Avenue?
DG: Rugby is the ultimate team gave, but there are stars, the David Beckham's of rugby: Dan Carter of All Blacks probably at the top of the list,; and Richie McCaw (All Blacks).
NYSJ: When you go to companies looking for potential marketing and sponsorship deals, and it's AIG with its global footprint but recent history, what type of reactions are you getting?
DG: People get it. AIG had its challenges recently in the U.S. I feel it's one of the most incredible stories to tell right now. About our comeback through our leadership and legacy. So a lot of these brands, the sophisticated folks, completely understand that AIG has been put through the ringer unfairly. We have not only made a comeback, we have paid back the government plus a profit. It also has significance in our history, our heritage, our legacy and our global footprint. Every property that we want to be involved with has to think globally. We are selling off half our company, but if you look at the Fortune 500 we are still the world's largest insurer. We have been in every market for 50-plus years, give or take.
NYSJ: Where do you see AIG taking rugby in the future?
DG: We are not just starting out thinking global is the popular trend right now. We were founded in China. As the NBA, the NFL are looking to do international business, guess what, we've been there for more than 50 years. We were with Manchester United before people (in the U.S.) started to look at the EPL. With New Zealand rugby, we are ahead of the trend. We are forward-looking. A lot of properties see that in us. And they see that we are looking to activate; we are not just an idol sponsor, we really engage with the properties and have a real partnership. So they see value in aligning with AIG. We are bringing brands to markets that they could not achieve without us.
Back to Home Page