The sport of rugby has long been exported to the U.S., a country crucial to the sport’s growth but where it is still trying to find a home in the mind of American sports fans. Now, a global rugby media platform is looking to do the opposite, helping the fledgling Major League Rugby league find a new audience both in the U.S. and abroad.
RugbyPass, a collection of rugby-oriented digital media platforms, recently partnered with Major League Rugby, now in its second season, to help expand the league’s reach.
“We have been following the progress of the MLR for a while now and love what they’re doing,” RugbyPass Chief Strategy Officer Richard North said. “Growth in the U.S. is integral to the global development of rugby and we believe that fans around the world, including expat Americans, will enjoy watching this content.”
The deal will add international coverage of select MLR games, highlights and clips to the RugbyPass Network, which joins CBS, CBSN, ESPN+, Facebook Watch and multiple regional sports networks as Major League Rugby broadcast partners. The RugbyPass platform includes RugbyPass TV and a network of rugby websites, which feature video and written content, podcasts and fantasy. The Major League Rugby games broadcast on RugbyPass will be delayed, as North said the platform wants to complement the league’s own coverage. RugbyPass will be the official digital partner of the MLR.
The current international appetite for American rugby is likely small, North says, but as the league continues to mature, the league should pick up interest with the RugbyPass Network of websites, which reach more than 2 million users a month. Jumping on board with Major League Rugby helps the network get on the ground floor early — the league is in its second season — and provide its rugby-hungry user base with more content.
“We want to help the development of new competitions and have done similar deals with Asia Rugby, the Brisbane Global 10s, the Hong Kong 10s and World Series Rugby,” North said. “As an aggregator of the best international rugby content, we hope to bring new teams and tournaments to global fans.”
USA Rugby reported last year that the U.S., along with India and China, were drivers of the sport’s growth, which has seen a global fanbase increase of 24% since 2013. The U.S. growth and RugbyPass both play into World Rugby’s strategic growth plan, which conducted the research study with Nielsen, which also found rugby to be the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.
“World Rugby is committed to ensuring a thriving, growing, inclusive game that is accessible to all and this research, which demonstrates significant fan-growth, reflects a sport is effective in attracting a new, younger audience in non-traditional rugby nations, despite huge competition for eyeballs and attention,” World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper said in the report. “The research also demonstrates that rugby has significant growth potential in both traditional and non-traditional markets and is increasingly attracting a younger audience. We will use the insight to guide our decision-making and approach to growing fans and participants in rugby globally.”
FOS chatted with commissioner Dean Howes in April about the league’s “slow and deliberate growth” plans. Major League Rugby currently has nine teams in the league and will welcome three more next season. Its goal is to reach 16 by 2022.
“We have the passion to say this sport deserves to be amongst the other major leagues,” Howes said. “We need to be able to say this is what it takes to sustain this thing for five years or 15 years.
“We’re in it for the long-haul and funded and structured for the long-haul.”
Major League Rugby will join more established rugby entities on the RugbyPass platform, which are currently broadcast across 23 Asian markets and 40 European territories
North said RugbyPass will first bolster its broadcasts of U.S. rugby with editorial coverage before expanding into “more bespoke content initiatives” like podcasts, fantasy and pulling stats for the RugbyPass Index.
Major League Rugby could also be included in the dozens of original content formats the platform produces, North says, noting Rugby United New York was featured on one of the platform’s shows, “Don’t Mess With Jim,” to promote the team, and league, in the United Kingdom. Other original content includes “Beyond 80: Knocked,” “The Short Ball,” “Late Tackle,” and “Kiwis Abroad.”
“RugbyPass is always open to working with new partners to produce shoulder programming. That compliments live broadcast and engages fans outside match days,” North says.
As rugby’s entry into the Olympic Games in 2020 nears closer, it’s likely the sport will make itself more known in the U.S. and abroad.