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.
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