While hoping to host a World Cup, USA Rugby has named Sportfive its exclusive global sports marketing agency of record in a wide-ranging deal. As the sport tries to jumpstart its growth in the U.S., Sportfive will help the national governing body develop its digital presence, expand its corporate partner base, evolve its media strategy and more.
USA Rugby oversees four national teams (men’s and women’s versions of both sevens and 15-player union) and has over 100,000 members across lower levels of competition. Last month, it revealed its bid to host the men’s Rugby World Cup—one of the largest sporting events in the world—in 2027 or 2031, and the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2029. (Sportfive is not directly supporting USA Rugby’s bid.)
Rugby participation boomed in the U.S. from roughly 2006 to 2016, when it was named the fastest growing sport in a Nielsen report. But that development has been much slower of late. USA Rugby filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May, after being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. “This is the most challenging period this organization has faced,” USA Rugby chair Barbara O’Brien said at the time. But the bankruptcy process, which USA Rugby exited three months later in August, did provide a chance to restructure and reevaluate, however painful that process was.
“As always, a fledgling sport trying to make its way is a bit of a roller coaster,” USA Rugby CEO Ross Young said during an interview Tuesday. Coming out of bankruptcy, the body decided to seek out an agency able to guide it going forward. Sportfive—which had existing relationships with European Professional Club Rugby, several rugby teams and other competitions in the sport—won out. Sportfive’s global portfolio includes more than 60,000 brands, rights holders, and events across 30 sports.
The company is already managing USA Rugby’s social accounts, looking to help the brand grow, just as it has with European soccer clubs, like Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid.
“What’s exciting for us about them as a sport is they have such a baseline, truly passionate fan base,” said Marc Tarozzi, EVP of Rooftop2 Productions, Sportfive’s experiential marketing and production agency. “There’s an opportunity to make sure we serve that dedicated fan base that they have and then bring more people into the fold, expose more people to what is so exciting about rugby.”
Sportfive’s digital team was on hand at FedEx Field on Oct. 23, when New Zealand’s All Blacks returned to the U.S. for the first time since 2016. The visitors routed a shorthanded American side, 104-14, in front of more than 40,000 attendees.
The hope is that a multi-year runway before a World Cup would give America time to strengthen its squad, and USA Rugby has its eyes on growing its grassroots participation numbers as well as its topline commercial connections. Japan offers a proven path, having managed to make the quarterfinals of the 2019 World Cup on home turf. It now boasts a Top 10 team internationally. The U.S. men’s union team is currently ranked 17th.
(The story was updated to clarify that Sportfive’s digital team was at the All Blacks match.)