The idea of launching a new sports league in a relatively niche sport, on the heels of an ongoing global pandemic, might sound daunting. But Owen Scannell is doing just that. The 30-year-old founder and CEO of the Premier Rugby Sevens league is introducing his new sports property with a splash: participation from a number of likely Olympic-bound players from the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams.
Having made its Olympic debut in 2016, sevens, as it’s called in the rugby world, is a fast-paced, reduced-size version of the sport. With seven players per side, teams participate in a series of short, tournament-style games over the course of a single day. Lasting just 14 minutes of actual play (two seven-minute halves), each sevens match is much quicker than the more traditional rugby union matches, which last 80 minutes and are played with 15 athletes on each side.
“Rugby is a great participation sport, but it can at times be difficult to understand,” Scannell said. “It has complicated rules. In thinking about how we make rugby succeed in the U.S., one of the angles I kept coming back to was sevens. Sevens effectively removes many of the knowledge barriers to entry for rugby. Then it came down to finding a model that fits this fast-paced, very short game into an entertainment product that works for both broadcast and a live entertainment experience.”
The approach for Scannell’s new league, PR7s, includes a Premier Lacrosse League-like format: a single-entity league with a tour-based circuit model, where men’s and women’s teams will play multiple games in one location over a festival-style weekend. The model also mirrors that of The World Rugby Sevens Series, an annual international rugby sevens circuit comprised of 10 tournaments between national teams held at venues across different 10 countries.
Scheduled to debut with a pilot tournament this fall—one for the six men’s teams and one for the league’s four women’s teams, conducted concurrently at the same venue—PR7s was founded on principles of diversity and equity. The men’s and women’s players, all competing under the same league umbrella, will be paid equally. Scannell hopes to have an equal number of men’s and women’s teams in the league for its first full season in 2022.
The fast-paced format is why the league’s CEO thinks it will find success in the U.S., where two other traditional rugby leagues—Major League Rugby and the relaunching National Rugby Football League, targeting a spring 2022 debut—already exist but struggle, lacking a national fan base.
In many ways, the sport is well-suited for wagering, which could also become a key revenue stream for the league and a way to reach new audiences. PR7s is currently talking to potential gaming partners. Scannell likens a day of sevens—where there are 20 to 25 games played—to a day at the races or the opening weekend of March Madness, if it happened for eight or 10 weekends straight.
“Independent of the rugby side of the equation, it’s a really great game for people who love sports betting,” he said, noting that the league’s teams aren’t tied to cities and therefore the league can operate in markets where sports betting is already legal and operational. Talks about integrating wagering information into broadcasts are also happening. Scannell said the league has had “good discussions” with a linear partner about airing this fall’s debut.
“There’s a tremendous core rugby community here in the U.S., but the thing about sevens is that you don’t need an hour-long primer to understand and digest the rules to really get the entertainment value of the sport,” Scannell added. “If we do it right, in terms of digital content, integrating entertainment, being in ideal markets, we can create something that’s really unique for a younger generation of millennials and the Gen Z crowd. Independent of my bullishness on rugby as a sport, I think there’s an appetite for entertainment.”
Perry Baker (who played briefly for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles before pivoting to rugby) and Danny Barrett, who played for Team USA in 2016 in Rio, headline the participants on the men’s side. Female national team stars including Abby Gustaitis, Ilona Maher and Naya Tapper have also already signed on for PR7s’ fall teaser.
All are expected to play in this summer’s Tokyo Games, which Scannell hopes will provide the momentum to help the new traveling league gain an audience, even in a crowded American fall sports calendar.
PR7’s first full season, slated for the second half of 2022, will likely include eight weekends across the U.S. and potentially in Canada. Scannell said it’s his intention to have all players who participate this fall return for the first full season next year. His sales pitch? The opportunity to play stateside.
“This is a great opportunity for them to play more domestically, especially kind of with the unbelievably brutal travel schedules of the players going to destinations on the International Circuit,” the PR7s CEO said.
The league declined to disclose financial details of its relationships with the 10 athletes it has signed to date, many of whom also play on national teams and have access to things like healthcare and benefits through other commitments. Scannell did confirm that players will be paid and said that PR7s has had what he described as “preliminary discussions” around the creation of a player option pool for early athlete participants.
While all of that is sorted out, an undisclosed group of private investors will fund this first fall tournament. The league is narrowing down its debut city and venue of choice, thinking strategically about attracting fans from outside the rugby community.
Scannell, a former collegiate rugby player at Dartmouth, articulated plans for another raise to fund PR7s first planned full season after this fall’s pilot, which he hopes will serve as a launching point for the league where it can “demonstrate the commercial viability of sevens in the U.S. and really engage with fans.”
“We tried to structure this like a typical venture-backed early stage company,” he said. “We’re basically demonstrating a proof of concept, and then we’ll be fundraising broadly after that. We’re relatively confident from a number of the preliminary conversations about a second round of fundraising. Obviously travel is a huge [cost] component of the circuit model, but the nice thing about this fall is that it takes a lot of that out of the early equation for us. So we have about seven to nine months of horizon once we get through this fall to go do a formal fundraise.”
With the funding PR7s has secured to date, Scannell has tapped a league general manager to oversee rugby operations in Mike Tolkin, the head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Rugby 15s team from 2012 to 2015. The league has also engaged Claygate Advisors to handle its media rights negotiations and hired sports sponsorship veteran Ethan Green, who has worked with Citi, WWE, NBCUniversal and more, to lead sponsorship sales for the league.
Single-entity ownership, Scannell said, gives the league flexibility and creativity when it comes to activations and makes for easy, one-stop shopping for partners and sponsors. No corporate backers have come on board yet, but PR7s does hope to have some lined up by this fall’s debut.