He has built it – will they come? Doug Schoninger and the US pro rugby dream

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Not much more than a year ago, the New Yorker knew little of rugby. On Sunday, he will launch Americas first pro league. Will he find an audience?

From the 36th floor of One Penn Plaza, where Doug Schoninger keeps an office, the view is simply extraordinary. The skyscrapers of Manhattan spread away to the south. To the west, the glittering Hudson and the Statue of Liberty herself. But then, in New York City, such views are ten a penny.

In the United States of America, so are professional sports leagues. From Sunday, Schoninger will have one of his own: PRO Rugby.

Starting a pro sports league in America in a little under a year is a remarkable feat. Success will be more remarkable still. The NBA and NHL are entering the playoffs, MLB and MLS are hitting their stride, the NFL casts its shadow over all. The sports pages and airwaves are full.

Still, five teams Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Ohio will play until July. All players will be centrally contracted. There will be tweaks to the laws including no draws. Games will be broadcast free around the globe on aol.com and by ONE World Sports on cable. And Schoninger, successful on Wall Street in high-yield bonds and in stadium financing, is paying.

By some metrics rugby union is the fastest growing sport in America. But America does not know rugby. So this begs the question: if San Francisco score a great try at Sacramento but everyone is elsewhere, watching the Golden State Warriors set the court on fire, will they make a sound?

Not for the first or last time in a hugely genial, hour-long conversation, Schoninger raps the table for emphasis, Francis Underwood-style.

I know one thing: if the fans dont engage then Im probably doing something wrong. This is fan-centric in the sports business you work for the fans and if there arent any fans, you arent working for anyone.

Ticket sales for the first two games have been sporadic. But thats OK, he says. Schoninger seems to see what others call problems brief build time, his own newness to the game, an uncertain public and co-opt them as strengths. But thats OK could be his most-used expression.

This is PRO Rugbys beta year, he says, in which things can be expected to fail.

I dont want to give people things that they dont want and I dont know if they want [rugby] or not. But Im trying to wake people up: if you really want it, do it. Dont come back in a couple years and say I wish I had supported more, now its gone.

Schoninger is not saying he will be gone in two years, although with no big sponsorship or media deals his pockets are getting lighter and lighter. He has said elsewhere that hes committed for three, after which he may or may not consider other investors.

Either way, Schoninger thinks the key is to knit his league into the roots of the game, where he hopes to find a young audience that knows rugby from school, college or club. Hence social media-heavy promotion.

Hence too the use of small stadiums in rugby hotbeds, mostly in the west, the east not yet providing suitable venues with surfaces that meet World Rugby regulation 22. Again, Schoninger seeks to make a virtue of it, and not just because on opening weekend it will be raining in Denver but 80 degrees and sunny in Sacramento.

MetLife
MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants. Photograph: Julio Cortez/AP

You need to embrace who you are and keep that smallness, right? I dont think I ever want to be in a stadium bigger than 10 or 12,000. That can be an asset for us. If we try to go big we lose the contest with the NFL, no question.

Schoninger sometimes gives the impression he is thinking out loud. But he knows some things for sure. He knows he cant compete with the NFL. After all, he has Giants tickets.

To me whats importance in all sports is closeness to the pitch, he says, even if its football. Thats why I dont like MetLife: the old Giants stadium was half the size but only had 5,000 fewer seats. Now I get that: most people are going now for the experience, the colosseum, the feel. But if youre going for sport its not a good place to watch. We have to keep that. We have to keep sport.

Boxer
Boxer Stadium now home to professional rugby union. Photograph: Michael P Gonos

In the case of American rugby, Schoninger says, sport means values and the values of rugby are blue collar: honesty, toil, teamwork, reward.

He tells a story about one venue, Boxer Stadium in San Francisco. For a while it seemed the parks department was not going to move the Gaelic football posts that stood at each end of the field.

Those posts are set back, 10 yards from the pitch. So I told them wed just move each penalty 10 yards closer, right? He laughs. And though Boxer is somewhat basic the locker rooms are just unbearable, theyre teenie and theyre gross Schoninger says his players took one look and said: This is great. This is who we are. Were gritty, were raw, screw those fancy San Diego guys

Is this the birth of a hundred-year rugby rivalry, something to rival Leicester-Northampton, Auckland-Canterbury, England-Scotland? He laughs again.

You make do, you know?

Some of PRO Rugbys players will. Salaries range from $35,000 to match fees only. International players Mils Muliaina in San Francisco, Pedrie Wannenburg in Denver and Mirco Bergamasco in Sacramento are the most capped are tasked with helping local talent grow.

I went to Sacramento, Schoninger says, and I met a squad of players. Thats the only squad I have met so far in full. Thats when it becomes real. Youve got this extended family. People have flown, you know? I thought, Oh God, I hope I dont disappoint.

But you know, you do the best you can do. And that doesnt mean throwing money at every problem. It means making the right decisions based on the right data.

Sacramento
The Sacramento PRO Rugby squad pose in 80F and sunshine for a preseason photo. Photograph: PRO Rugby

Schoningers conversion to rugby grew out of money and data. He was looking to buy a major sports team. None were available. But then, one day not much more than a year ago, he found himself having breakfast at Rosemarys on Greenwich Avenue. Across the table was a promoter who wanted to bring pro rugby to America.

The plan involved hundreds of millions of dollars and teams dropped into big stadiums. To Schoninger, though he did not know much about rugby, it didnt seem right. But he was intrigued, enough to fly to Chicago in November 2014 to see the US Eagles take a beating from the mighty All Blacks. Soon he was introduced to Nigel Melville, chief executive of USA Rugby.

On 21 April 2015 World Rugby and USA Rugby gave Schoninger sanction to operate Americas first pro league. The 11 months since have been full of hard work. A lot of it has been political. American rugby contains other operations, all ambitious. When it comes to professional rugby, most want in. When it comes to PRO Rugby, some want out.

Schoninger has been criticised for his perceived rush to play, for being an outsider, for communicating too much or too little. At seminars, socials and dinners his tan linen jacket has become a common sight, as he stoops to answer questions.

Some of its very helpful, he says, and some of its very negative, as a newbie.

He continues, with an air of bemusement: One thing that was very representative was [criticism] about the uniforms. It was that its a bicycle company Champion System thats making them. And my point is, And your point is?

Cycling has done an incredible job in England and America. If we get some of those fans? Great.

The plan is that the public will help shape their teams name, crest and colours. Its all part, Schoninger says, of an attempt to turn amateur supporters into professional fans.

I defined our mission at the beginning as rugby being brought into the public culture, he says. I think weve accomplished a little bit of that. Obviously the Olympics is going to help too. But to me the ultimate goal is that we enter the conversation of being a real American sport. Its great that rugbys growing fast but its from a very low base. Were still very small.

But then, its funny. I was reading a report [by SMG Insight] the other day and it was well done, and it said there are 4.2 million fans of rugby in the US and 16 million supporters. Id like to know where they are gimme their addresses!

He is not the only one who would like them. In March, Premier Rugby landed London Irish and Saracens in New Jersey. The game was proclaimed a success.

I thought the Irish-Saracens game was wrong, Schoninger says. You dont take two teams from a different country and plop them into a place.

The argument that the NFL does it is a bad argument. England doesnt play American football theyre not insulting anyone. And theyre not spending the money the NFL has spent to activate in England, and for the NFL its been years and years. Its not a new thing.

So I think its a bit of hubris in the way that they did it, and what works better is you engage with US rugby. I think most of the English clubs get that Im not sure Premier Rugby does.

But then, whats good for rugby is good for me. So I hope everyones successful. Theres just several ways to do it, I guess.

Infinity
Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado the first purpose-built rugby stadium in the US. Photograph: Andy Cross/Denver Post via Getty Images

Such arguments will run and run. Schoninger, who is his own media manager, will likely be part of them. For now, he is focusing on Sunday in Sacramento.

Im flying Saturday morning, he says. I get there midday, Ive got some meetings and stuff. The New York Times is finishing up a report, CNN International is doing their rugby show there that week, weve got a lot of journalists due, local and non-local.

And Ill just try not to pan He bursts out laughing, again.

I dont know. The die is cast at this point. Theres not much we can do. Well go for a good dinner, wake up the next morning the games not till the afternoon. I cant watch the Denver game on TV since its not on TV, so I guess Ill be on the phone. And well hope for the best, you know? Well have a good time and not freak out.

But its the first game. Id like it to be good.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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