PRO Rugby: As America's first professional rugby league kicks-off, chief executive Doug Schoninger discusses the game's prospects in the USA

Joe Hall
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Fly the flag: PRO Rugby believes there is an audience for the sport in America

After over 150 years since rucks and mauls first formed on its shores, a professional rugby league is finally coming to America this weekend.

Before even the American Civil War was waged primitive forms of the game were being contested in Ivy League universities. Amateur rugby clubs existed before the First World War and the USA still remain the reigning Olympic champions at rugby, winning in 1920 and 1924 - the last time the sport was played at the Games.

Rugby returns to the Olympics at Rio de Janeiro this summer, and although the USA may still be a way off world No1 status, significant movements are being made to aid the game’s growth in the country.

PRO Rugby, the first professional rugby union league in American history, kicks-off this weekend with five teams established in Denver, Ohio, San Diego, Sacramento and San Francisco and players including USA internationals and former All Black and Rugby World Cup winner Mils Muliaina.

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It arrives at a time when rugby has been much trumpeted as one of, if not the, fastest-growing sport in the USA. International heavyweights, Premiership Rugby clubs and Super Rugby teams have all turned their focus towards what is believed to be a potentially huge fan base waiting to be found in the Land of the Free.

Doug Schoninger, the New York-based businessman who set up and is sole financier of the project, believes rugby can be the start-up sport for America’s millennial generation - even if he doesn’t expect the NFL to be looking over its shoulder anytime soon.

“There’s 330m people here, it’s kind of infinite how much rugby could grow or how big it could become,” Schoninger told City A.M.

“Objectively rugby is the most millennial sport of any in America because of its respectfulness, co-operation, problem-solving on the fly. These are all things that Google looks to hire things for.

USA 7s stars like Carlin Isles could be recruited to PRO Rugby following the Olympics (Source: Getty)

“Other American sports are much more my generation; job specific, assembly line, you’re not a generalist you’re a specialist.”

Schoninger, who first became involved in sports after buying the Stadium Capital Financing Group from Morgan Stanley in 2013, even compares rugby to both Amazon and Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy as an equally alternative, disruptive force ready to rock the establishment.

In such fashion, PRO Rugby is shirking traditional sports broadcasters and will aim to build a dedicated niche community online - “there’s more room for subcultural sports” says Schoninger. AOL have agreed to make the league its debut live sports stream.

If this all sounds like a hare-brained pipedream from a rugby outsider, it’s worth taking note of the fact that both World Rugby and USA Rugby - with whom Schoninger was put in touch by Jonny Wilkinson’s agent Tim Buttimore - have sanctioned the league.

USA Rugby has been overseeing the development of the sport since 1975, working on growing the game at a grassroots club and college level.

The vast majority of native rugby players and fans start in college before linking up with clubs which have carried the domestic torch for decades.

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It is here PRO Rugby has gone to derive most of its players and coaches, rather than adopting what Schoninger describes as an MLS style importing of high-profile names from abroad. After all, while David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles in 2007 with some level of public awareness, rugby remains so small that Dan Carter could kick penalties in Central Park without being bothered.

Mils Muliaina, capped 100 times by the All Blacks, is one of the higher-profile names in PRO Rugby (Source: Getty)

Similarly, don’t expect the league to simply hoover up all the muscled-up machines rejected by the NFL. “It’s just not that easy to turn the switch,” Schoninger says. “In fact, they’re very different skill sets. Different muscle types are required for endurance [in rugby] to short spurts of energy [American football].”

Next year some players representing the USA in Olympic 7s such as speedster Carlin Isles are expected to be recruited into the league.

A successful Olympic campaign will thus help raise awareness of both rugby and its new professional vehicle, but only time will tell if it will be enough for PRO Rugby to carve out its own niche in America’s crowded sports industry and deliver long-term growth.

“It’s a raw bet,” says Schoninger. “Even though this subculture has existed it has done so in a very clubby, insular way.”

“So there has never been attempt since the 1920s to expose it to popular culture. With the tools that exist now we’ve got a great opportunity.”

“I don’t feel like I have a whole lot of ego in this game,” he adds, “but I do feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”