MBPT Spotlight: Is Rugby Next U.S. Breakout Sport? AIG Exec Talks About Its Marketing Potential

On Nov. 1, some 61,500 people shook the foundation of Soldier Field in Chicago, home of the Chicago Bears, though they weren’t there to watch the NFL.

Instead, it was the U.S. Men’s National Rugby Team—the Eagles—facing off against New Zealand, a team as famous and iconic as Manchester United, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees.

The match, won in lopsided fashion 74-6 by New Zealand, was presented by global insurance firm AIG and aired live on NBC, which used 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.

Like soccer, rugby has a tremendous dedicated following. The 2011 Rugby World Cup 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.

Companies are taking notice of the sport’s U.S. growth. In 2012, AIG signed multiyear deals with USA Rugby as well as the New Zealand Rugby Union, among other alliances.

In early October, 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 included Emirates Airline, Gatorade and athletic sportswear company BLK.

Here, Daniel Glantz, AIG’s global head of sponsorship, talks about what the company sees as potential for the sport’s growth in the states.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: People know rugby but don’t know about rugby. Why sponsor rugby?

I hear that a lot. We even put that into a TV spot we put together as part of some 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.

Can rugby follow the path of soccer, which had its core followers in the U.S. and took time to ramp up but is now hot with fans, marketers, stadiums, TV?

Absolutely. We are a little bit behind where Major League Soccer has taken the game, maybe 15 years. But there is a market.

Is there growth here on the grass-roots level?

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 to 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.

Is there talk of a pro rugby league here?

Yes. We are not quite there because there is no professional 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.

What demographics are you attracting and/or targeting as far as age and fans from sports in the U.S.?

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 audience. The golf audience. [English Premiere 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.

Are you finding that people not familiar with rugby are understanding the different teams of Sevens and 15s?

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 seethat 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.

NBC aired the Chicago game, and they also are the Olympics network. Do you see the Chicago event as a springboard to promote rugby in the 2016 Summer Games to fans in America?

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 aired this match nationally is historic. I believe it was the first time outside of the Rugby World Cup that a 15s-style game was aired nationally. And it was on a Saturday, right in the middle of college football. That is a testament to where they see the game growing.

How big is social media to rugby’s growth?

Social media is definitely a driver in getting our message, getting the word out about the game and growing the sport…it is helping not only with marketing and promotion, but to build the community.

 

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?

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.

 

Where do you see AIG taking rugby in the future?

We are not just starting out thinking ‘global’ is the popular trend right now. We were founded in China. As the NBA and 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 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.

Reprinted with permission from NYSportsJournalism.com