This weekend will see the kick-off of professional rugby in America and RW speaks to the man tasked with exposing it to a potential audience of 330 million
By Graham Jenkins
“Professional rugby has officially arrived in America.”
It is an audacious claim to make before a tackle has been made in the inaugural battle for the PRO Rugby title but the man behind the first competition to be sanctioned by USA Rugby and World Rugby is used to making bold and successful calls.
Doug Schoninger made his name and his fortune in finance and banking before deciding the United States was finally ready to embrace rugby union on a grand scale and so convinced is he that he is prepared to prove it using his own money.
The New Yorker has bankrolled the entire operation including the setting up of teams in Denver, Ohio, Sacramento, San Diego and San Francisco and the recruitment of the playing roster that includes ex-All Black centurion Mils Muliaina and former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg.
“What really attracts me is that this is the last global sport not to go professional in the United States,” he explained, “it doesn’t mean it is going to work but there are not a whole lot of others to play with.
“My job now is to expose 330 million people to this game, if they don’t like it then I was wrong.”
To help convince the sports-mad population, including fans old and new as well as potential sponsors that rugby has indeed arrived, the league is prepared to shake things up a little.
“We’re going to play sudden death so we are always going to have a result,” explained director of rugby operations Steve Lewis. “We’ve also told the refs we want high ball in play stats, we want speed and, without being artificial, we want points.”
That determination to present an attractive product extends to often troublesome elements of the sport. “What’s the blight in the modern game? Scrum resets,” continued Lewis. “So I have expressed to the refs and coaches that we are having no more than two resets at which point the ref makes a decision.
“They may get it right, they might get it wrong, but the ball will be back in play. Short-arm, nobody gets three points, nobody gets 40 yards with a kick, but the ball is back in play.
“We have also had meetings with the coaches where the message has been that you don’t get to year two without year one so this year we have to be more collaborative than competitors and that is difficult as every fibre of their bodies is competitive.
“Short of not hiring defensive coaches there’s not much more we can do.
“You have got to suck it up sometimes and realise that the whole thing has got to work and it’s not just about winning the league. It’s no good if there is no league in the second year.”
They are also breaking new ground off the field.
The team names may appear a little bland to those US sports fans used to cheering on the ‘Warriors’, ‘Royals’ or ‘Broncos’ but there is a reason for that and it is part of the plan to build a dependable fan base with millennials a key target demographic.
“We want to give ownership of that to the initial supporters, the foundation supporters of rugby,” explained Schoninger. “We’ll then pick one, build the logo around it and proper uniforms in the second year.
“But the trick is if you want ownership it comes with responsibility, I’m giving you ownership but only as much as you take on responsibility.
“So when people ask me what can do I say go to games, buy a bit of the kit, if you don’t live anywhere near watch them on TV and watch them with people who don’t necessarily know rugby, spread the word – that’s what you can do, it doesn’t cost you anything.”
The innovation does not stop there.
The league announced this week that rather than the traditional TV broadcast right deal, games will be streamed worldwide via AOL.com and will also be available on cable through One World Sports.
“The sports world is changing dramatically right now,” explained Schoninger, “so we are in the midst of that storm which is ultimately beneficial to us but short-term it is a negative.
“There are all these new distribution paths but I’m very much a digital guy and I think that’s what the presentation needs to be, I don’t think watching it on TV anymore is that interesting especially for people a lot younger than me.”
But this isn’t just a money making exercise – the league’s mission is to fuel the development of the game in the country but to do that they are willing to use overseas talent.
“The mandate of the league is to grow the American game, but that being said, sometimes you need to use the assets of people who are more developed than you,” insisted Schoninger.
“I am 100% supportive of USA Rugby and I believe that they are 100% supportive of me, that’s kind of what you want, just like your spouse, you don’t want them to get involved too much.”
But Schoninger is well aware it is not just a matter of paying players.
“It was an amateur game, it is still an amateur game, we are bridging it to professionalism and it’s not something you just walk across to quickly,” he said.
“It’s not just the players who are amateur, the structure is amateur, the participants are amateur, everything is amateur about it. Our job is not just to bring the players into professionalism but to bring everything into professionalism.”
As a result he is not looking too far ahead. “You’ve got to make a start, it’s like a sales meeting you know, the goal of a first sales meeting is to get a second sales meeting, there is no other goal.”