Major League Rugby (MLR) begins its fourth season this weekend. If you knew that, chances are you are among those that commissioner George Killebrew calls the “rugby faithful.” The league has done a “pretty good job” of appealing to those who have a pre-existing relationship to the sport, he said. “They’re watching. They’re attending. They’re following us on social media. They’re [engaged].”
But Killebrew acknowledged the lone North American rugby league has not done nearly as well “getting new fans and reaching out to new people”—necessary if MLR is going to realize long-term, exponential growth. So, the league hired Octagon during the 2020 offseason to help identify opportunities to grow the fan base. The consultancy found there to be “a ton of interest and curiosity” surrounding the sport, much like “when MLS first began 25 years ago,” Killebrew said. And much like the fans who were initially drawn to the now-quarter century old soccer league, there are a group of young people “that want something that can be their own, and they can be a part of from the ground floor.” Those people are potential MLR fans. The trick is now introducing them to the sport.
Our Take: The commissioner admitted that “as with most startup leagues, [MLR has historically taken] kind of a ready, fire, aim [approach]. It’s [been] just trying to get up and running and get things going.” So, if there is a silver lining to last season being halted after just five weeks, Killebrew said it’s the fact that the league and its teams “basically [had] a full year to work on the business aspects of rugby” (think: everything from ticket and sponsorship sales to growing grassroots programs). For the record, all of the “economic indicators that sports teams and leagues are judged by were pointing up [when play was suspended],” he said. “Our attendance was up. Our ratings on television were up. And our OTT following was up significantly (33% YoY).”
Octagon conducted an in-depth, three-part analysis of MLR in the wake of the 2020 season that now guides the league’s marketing strategies. As noted, the research study (which included stakeholder interviews, digital research and a fan targeting survey) indicated, “There is a great swath of [young] people that want something they can hang their hat on and really call their own,” Killebrew said. With that in mind, the league has tailored its positioning and messaging for the 2021 season accordingly. For example, MLR now plays heavily off the word “try” (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown) in promotional campaigns–“a double entendre for those that understand rugby,” the commissioner said.
For Major League Rugby to draw new fans, the study indicated the league, which has grown from eight teams in 2018 to 13 today, needs to position itself as “super inclusive.” There are 10 international players on each team (from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, England, South Africa and Argentina), and MLR hopes to be able to turn ex-pats from each of those countries into fans. “There’s [also] a huge LGBTQ following within rugby, so you have to be very good at marketing to those demographics as well,” Killebrew said. “If [the league] can position itself as we’re welcoming to all and [convey] there is reason and ties for all of those demographics to want to come, [then] it [just becomes] about awareness.” The league will leverage a pair of television broadcast pacts (CBS Sports, Fox Sports), their OTT platform (RugbyPass) and a newly introduced interactive digital content hub (The Rugby Network) to attract attention. The Major League Rugby finals, scheduled for Aug. 1, will air nationally on CBS.
The other key finding to arise from the Octagon study was the fans’ desire for the sport to include a “fun factor.” “[Families looking for affordable entertainment and casual sports fans] see the physicality and the characteristics [of the big four sports] all kind of combined in rugby, and now they just want to come and have fun too,” Killebrew said. So, the league spent time this offseason working on its game presentation and trying to enhance the in-stadium experience.
Major League Rugby generates revenue from ticket sales and sponsorships at the local level and from partnerships and broadcast rights at the league level. With gate receipts certain to be limited in 2021 (some markets won’t have any fans to start the season), MLR teams know they are going to operate at a loss this year. The league is pressing forward anyway. Killebrew said the decision was driven by the owners’ desire to regain momentum. “It would have been very easy not to play,” he said. “We have a team in Toronto. The borders are closed. They are relocating their whole operation to Atlanta. Our team in San Diego is relocating to Las Vegas for the beginning of the season [due to COVID-19 restrictions in California]. But for a challenger league in its fourth year, we need to get matches in. If we’re going to continue to grow and get a toehold here in North America, we need to have live content.”