PRO Rugby North America started as many great ideas do: with a casual encounter in a coffee shop.

A little over a year ago, Doug Schoninger, now the CEO of PRO Rugby, was just another businessman taking an informal meeting with a friend of a friend. At the time, Doug was the head of Stadium Capital Financing Group, a full service provider that worked with sports teams to finance stadium construction, renovation, and expansion. This friend of a friend was interested in a professional American rugby league and, over time, Schoninger became intrigued as well. However, he had a different view of how to get it done.

“He was trying to raise a couple hundred million dollars, start out with major stadiums,” Schoninger explained. “I was trying to counsel him to moderate his expectations, I didn’t think his presentation was what would work, for tons of reasons. Number one, I didn’t think it was particularly authentic to rugby in America.”

But what exactly does “authentic to rugby in America” even mean?



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Today, after the college ranks, the only outlet for American ruggers who don’t have the skill or the means to take their talents to the professional level overseas is to join a local club team. These are non-profit men’s and women’s organizations that are powered by nothing but the love of the game and the desire to win a National Championship.

For Curtis Brillhart, Captain of the Old Gaelic Rugby Club based in Central Pennsylvania, rugby represents more than just a way to channel his competitive nature:

I had hopes when I came back to the club level of rugby that it would be something like that [bond]. Fortunately for me, I found that in our local club. I found guys that were not only teammates, but off the field, we’re friends.
 
…it’s made everything about my life enhanced.

The passion of clubs like these — some with roots going back 40+ years — have helped rugby grow from participation, quality, and exposure standpoints in the United States. However, that means if you’re PRO Rugby, flying in a bunch of veteran professionals from around the world to kick-start the league (a la Major League Soccer) wouldn’t be particularly “authentic” to the American game.

Luckily, the sport has grown plenty on its own without having to skip any steps. It continues to be America’s fastest-growing sport, with participation rising a staggering 81% from 2008-13. Last year’s Eagles vs. All Blacks match sold out Soldier Field’s 61,500-person capacity, proving Americans are willing to pay to see quality rugby, and it was recently announced that the All Blacks will be back in Chicago next year.

At the World Cup, the Americans — the only team without a domestic professional league in its pool — were truly competitive in three of its four matches, and were even in it up until halftime against world power South Africa.

The development of the Men’s and Women’s Sevens team is even above that of their 15s counterparts, the men winning their first ever HSBC Sevens World Series tournament this past season.

Both teams will also be participating in the Olympics this summer, the first time since 1924 that rugby has been part of the Olympic games. With first and second place finishes, respectively, in tournaments last season, both the Men’s and Women’s teams have what it takes to make a run and garner the kind of patriotism the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team achieved in last summer’s World Cup.

And you might remember how that helped soccer grow domestically…

Starting in April, the PRO Rugby season will be in between the World Cup and the Olympics, riding the momentum between both events. The small but rabid population of American rugby fans should ensure that the league will have enthusiastic supporters behind it from the onset, but PRO Rugby’s true challenge will be capturing the attention of the millions of Americans who aren’t currently rugby fans.

It’s a challenge Schoninger is up to, and he believes now is the right time to tackle it:

The sports world is fragmenting, so it’s an opportunity that opens up for all sports. More particularly in professional team sports in America, I think there’s been a maturity that speaks to a level that is really great, really professional, but really doesn’t fit the ethos of a lot of people.
 
I think there’s a vocal minority of people that are looking for something, particularly younger people, who are statistically not watching the traditional sports at the same level as my generation, so there’s this kind of need.

But how did we get from a chat in a coffee shop to the announcement that PRO Rugby was a go? Well, Schoninger started asking around his inner circle if anyone knew someone of prominence in American rugby. As it so happened, he did have a friend who knew Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby, and that’s where things really took off.

What Schoninger needed was endorsement from World and USA Rugby, the governing bodies for the sport worldwide and in America, respectively. Other failed attempts at professional rugby leagues in America — such as the NRFL — were never able to procure this sign-off, and were thus doomed to fail from the start. “The beginning and end of this this process is getting sanctioned by World Rugby and USA Rugby,” Schoninger conceded. “[Nigel and I] basically spoke the same language in how we thought the thing should grow, and could grow, and we came to a consensus.”

With the blessing from USA and World Rugby, the coals really started to warm.

Quite simply, the statistics back up Schoninger’s belief that younger sports fans are looking for change. Among Millennials, participation in baseball, basketball and football are down, compared to numbers taken just four years previously. In fact, football participation has been cut nearly in half. With concussion concerns lowering football’s participation across the board, rugby may be the perfect sport to give Americans the collisions they love, but with safer tackling techniques and fewer traumatic brain injuries.

Though even the most ardent rugby fans aren’t ready to take on the NFL. “I honestly don’t think rugby can oust football as the number one sport in America. Even with football participation down across the board it’s hard to envision rugby as the top sport for Americans to watch,” said Mike Minchik, President of the Potomac Exiles’ Rugby Club, based out of the Washington DC Metro area. However, with the seasons strategically placed during the NFL’s down time, Minchik could definitely see PRO rugby “taking a foothold,” as a collision sport alternative while football is going through its offseason.

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Only time will tell if rugby can compete with American football for attention, but if it does, it might be because of PRO Rugby’s willingness to eschew the current sporting world’s norms. In lieu of a traditional media plan, there will be active engagement and involvement between players and fans. “No one’s ever started anything like this with only a social media plan, and that’s what we’re doing. So it’s a different presentation,” Schoninger said. “Say, 50 minutes [into a match], a guy comes off the field. It has to be the right guy, [but now] he’s commenting, how beautiful is that? It doesn’t get any better. That’s one example of how we want to present it. Present it in this super-authentic way. That’s what people want to see.”

Centering on transparency and a connection with fans, PRO Rugby’s plan coincides in a lot of ways with what the sport looks like in America, with roughly half of the National Team returning to day jobs after the World Cup. “That’s unique to us and the other nonprofessional countries.” Schoninger said. “You can relate to this sport, and you present it through these people initially. And so, that’s the fun, and for the media part, that’s what we’re trying to find.”

Speaking of non-traditional, when asked what will deem PRO Rugby a success in its opening years, Schoninger doesn’t even mention economics: “My major role is to get 300 million people on this continent exposed to rugby, to really know what it is, and to look at it and consider it as something that is of interest to them.” A plan without a dollar amount tied to success? Try hearing that from big-time American sports executives.

When asked what would be a victory in his mind, Brillhart replied:

I’d love to see the exposure, and start filling stadiums, and having people start to understand what a great sport rugby really is.
 
I want to see the United States be able to compete at a higher level internationally. I’d like to see that coming from the ground up, kids training from high school into college to go on and play professional rugby and then to be on the U.S. team and compete internationally, and hopefully make America a powerhouse.

Fortunately for fans like Brillhart, the top goal — along with gaining exposure to the non-rugby fans in America — is to develop the domestic talent. “The mandate between USA Rugby and me is, we’re going to grow the American game with American players as much as possible,” Schoninger said. “The goal is for us to be a power in rugby, and in order to do that, we have to create our own channels.”

With a plan centered on transparency with its fans, a league ready to identify with a culture rooted in change, and a mandate to raise the quality of rugby in America, it’s clear that PRO Rugby is going to attract the 450,000 registered rugby players in the States.

The question is, will it be able to capture the rest of a nation whose introduction to the game often starts out with the question: “That’s like football without pads, right?”