Pro Rugby: Can substance trump style in U.S. sports?

Story highlights

  • PRO Rugby launched in the U.S.
  • Five teams compete in professional league
  • It has lured some big-name players
  • Rugby the fastest growing sport in America

(CNN)Forget the halftime concerts, the rich and famous sat courtside being snapped by the paparazzi, and the celebrity first pitch -- it's time for sport to trump entertainment.

That's the view of Doug Schoninger, who is planning to take the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. and make it a mainstay of American culture.
Schoninger believes PRO Rugby, a five-team professional franchise he launched last month, can tap into the grassroots of local sport which the bigger franchises like NFL and NBA have moved away from.
"I feel that America needs a more traditional sport -- less entertainment, more sport," Schoninger told CNN World Rugby.
"Rugby represents the same kind of traditions as the existing sports had many years ago. The hard work, toil, reward and -- hopefully and eventually -- people who are part of the community and players who can be given the opportunity and platform to perform extraordinarily.
"Some of the professional sports have migrated a little from that. We feel there's a void for a more connected, cooperative sport where the fans can really feel at one with the player and not so much have the wall so high between them and the fan."
Schnoninger wants fan engagement -- supporters being close to the players, at smaller stadiums with capacities ranging from 5-12,000 at most, and the opportunity for youngsters to see the game from real close up.
He wants big-name players such as Mils Muliaina, the former All Black who won 100 caps for New Zealand, and Italy's Mirco Bergamasco, to inspire where other sports are failing.
Schoninger, a huge NFL fan, watched around 20 games last season -- but he feels that fans are failing to gain the maximum impact from their experience.
San Francisco and Sacramento went head to head on the opening weekend.
"In NFL you're very disconnected from the field," he said.
"I think the most important thing for an in venue experience is the distance to the pitch. It really doesn't matter what sport you're talking about. You need to be close, you need to feel connected. A lot of the stadiums, for me, have got too big and corporate."
Schnoninger is trying to capitalize on an upsurge of popularity for U.S. rugby, which has grown by 81% between 2008-13.
He has invested heavily, with around 40 of the top-tier players being paid $35,000 and tier-two players receiving $20,000 for the competition, which runs between April 17-July 31.
Figures provided by USA Rugby state there are more than 115,000 registered rugby players in the country with 32,000 of those at colleges, and the rest in high schools and clubs across 48 of the 50 states. And it's not just the men's game which is growing -- 25% of those registered are women.
Sacramento defeated San Francisco 37-25 in the league's first match.
A separate report from the Sports Fitness Industry Association in the U.S. puts the number of participants in rugby at 1.2 million.
A match between the USA Eagles, the men's 15-a-side national team, and New Zealand's All Blacks at Chicago's Soldier Field in 2014 demonstrated the potential audiences in America, drawing a record crowd of 61,000.
In March, England's Aviva Premiership hosted a regular season game at New York's Red Bull Arena, with over 14,000 turning out to watch Saracens defeat London Irish.
Add the Olympic debut of rugby sevens at Rio 2016 in August and it's not a surprise why the game is on the up.
The appetite for rugby is there, according to Schoninger, though he preaches patience with the venture still in its infancy.
The teams, based in Denver, Ohio, San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco, have already attracted new fans to the game.
But while crowds are around the 3,000 mark at the moment, Schoninger is optimistic they will grow. He plans to introduce more and more teams over the next couple of years.
Denver and Ohio braved the weather during their opening weekend clash.
"I think like anything new it can take time," he added.
"We are lucky that we have a good base for rugby followers in this country which has been estimated to be anywhere between one million to 17 million.
"My guess is it's one to 2.5 million who follow rugby on a weekly basis, at least. I think off of that base we can grow. It's a great opportunity for people to understand other types of sports.
"We give a great opportunity to a lot of international players to come to America, experience America, most of them are English speaking so lots of the other countries aren't as desirable because of language barriers and lifestyle issues. Getting a five-year visa, playing the game, getting well coached with world-class training facilities and sometimes much better to what they're used to.
"I think it will be a case of years not decades that we're going to start looking like a really powerful rugby country."
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