According to a Rugby is currently the fastest growing team sport in the United States. There has been a near 400% growth of participation since the turn of the millennium (Belzer, 2015). Yet, the United States only has around 130,000 out of the global 9.1 million active players registered (Kocher, 2014). The disparity between growth rate and participant ratio shows how the rugby landscape is potentially at a turning point of expansive and massive growth in the country, with collegiate rugby players leading the crusade. The college demographic makes up the largest segment of registered and active players in the United States (Curry, 2016). Teams now more than ever are attempting to seize this opportunity to further develop the sport, by employing creative marketing strategies in an attempt to capture the attention of potential athletes, and by utilizing disruptive marketing innovations such as social media to create player engagement and foster community.
However, this kind of aggressive growth is only as sustainable as the sectors' ability to adapt to changing conditions – macro-environment fluctuations such as generational disparities, and technological disruptions. With the purpose of better understanding how teams can accomplish this, the author explores engagement methods by first examining the sports value in the collegiate segment, explore why the sport has proven to be particularly attractive to the current college population, and review the role of social media as a primary recruitment tool for this generation. So, that college recruiters and rugby marketing practitioners alike can use this information to tailor best practice strategies to maximize player recruitment and retention for future generations.
Rugby is the 9th most popular sport in the world, with an estimated global following of 475 million people and 9.1 million active registered and participating athletes (Kocher, 2014). But even with such popularity, rugby was never able to gain traction in the United States (Kocher, 2014). It wasn't until the beginning of this decade when the sport began to experience a renaissance-like transformation, propelling rugby to the fastest growing team sport in the country (Belzer, 2015).
Shifting from an unfamiliar hobby to an emerging industry with a sizable ticket-buying public, the pressure on any sport as with any business in expansion and reaching new markets and media outlets is evident (Curry, 2016); However, looking at recent results and new initiatives instigated by USA Rugby, such as Play Rugby USA and Rugby International Marketing Group, rugby is being taken beyond its traditional core and is, finally, developing in branching countries such as the United States (Rugby, 2018). Specifically, within the collegiate demographic.
Collegiate Rugby in the United States
Rugby became a recognized professional sport in the US in 1995; However, within the span of two years, two different professional rugby leagues began and ended in 2016 due to broken contracts and sanction violations (Kucharski, 2017). Which is why rugby in the US has yet to find a stable professional presence. While professional rugby is struggling to find its place within the US, it has found rapid growth with college athletes. Dan Payne, the CEO of USA Rugby, reported that out of all the leagues, collegiate athletes make up the largest segment of active players in the United States by 32.6%. There are now more than 1000 college teams spanning across the country, with varsity and division 1 club level programs receiving unprecedented media exposure through highly competitive intercollegiate tournaments (Everett, 2018). The two most successful annual events for collegiate rugby in the United States – The Collegiate Rugby Championships and the Las Vegas Sevens – drew in over 80,000 in attendance, with an average of 1.23 million network viewers in 2018 alone (Everett, 2018).
However, it is important to note that in the grandeur scheme of collegiate sports in the United States, rugby is still in its infancy (Kucharski, 2017). Due to the lack of popularity in comparison to American “anchor sports” such as football and baseball, there has been little to none demand for youth development programs. Because of this lack of exposure from a young age, a staggering 86.3% of American rugby players gain their first exposure to the sport in college (Kocher, 2014). On top of that, 93.5% of current national team members either began their careers early in college, or had transferred from another sport such as track, hockey, or football late in college. Because of this phenomenon, USA Rugby recognizes that collegiate athletes also represent the greatest talent pool for Olympic level development. With an infusion of sponsorship dollars from corporations like Adidas, Emirates, Penn Mutual, Geico, Gatorade, and Toyota, collegiate rugby is not only a trend, but a business on the rise (Belzer, 2015). With larger governing bodies such as USA Rugby marketing the sport as an exciting entry way to attract sponsors as well as develop players for the national team, universities have started to use rugby as a recruiting tool. This synergy between the increasing popularity of the sport and Gen Y athletes has been largely connected with the digital marketing revolution of the 1990s and the generations tech savvy reputation. By analyzing the relationship between this connection, we can deduce an improved process of how recruiters of the sport can leverage trends in the macro-environment, such as the wave of digital disruptions seen at the turn of the millennium, that may impede on the engagement of next generations of college rugby players.
Disruptive innovations in technology has forced marketers to adapt to shifting environments, especially since the turn of the millennium with the digital marketing revolution (Brinker, Lieb, Gupta, 2014). The advent of the personal computer, cellphone, Internet, and other digital technologies have been instrumental in shaping modern day consumer behavior and preferences. To adapt to this change, marketers have transitioned from traditional means of mass communication such as television, print ads, and direct mail, to using digital tools such as email, blogs, and social media.
Figure 1: Digital Marketing Revolution
In the Burson-Marsteller Social Media Check-up Report, it was found that, between 2012 and 2015, social networking marketing spending increased 165.8%, from $884 million to $2.34 billion. The total amount of time spent at social networking sites has increased 210% in the last year; with the average person spending 143% more time on these sites than they did a year ago (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). As a result, people are creating and seeking more content. This growing phenomenon presents opportunities for marketers to have presence in these social media spaces (Dickey, Lewis, 2010).
Now, you don't have to be, or hire a professional marketer to advertise your brand. With access to a set of new relationship building tools of smartphones and social media, anyone can engage in the practice of advertising and promotion (Brinker et al., 2014).
The Current Generation of Collegiate Athletes in America
The generation that coincided with this digital movement is called Generation Y, often referred to as the “Millennials” or the “Echo Boom” generation (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). This is also the generation of all soon-to-be, current, and recent collegiate rugby athletes leading the rapid growth of rugby in the US today. For recruiters to successfully connect with Gen Y, it is imperative to first understand their demographics and behaviors.
Members of this generation were born between 1977 and 2000, ranging from 10 to 33 years of age (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). They are mainly characterized by three traits: open-mindedness, inclusiveness, and individuality (“Millennials Outnumber,” n.d.). They were born into a period of economic growth and prosperity, rapid globalization, and advancements in technology (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). Growing up with personal computers and smart tablets, they have mastered their uses for many aspects of their lives, particularly in the unrestricted communication of their values and beliefs (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). As a result, marketers must keep up with the technological advances and generational values of this generation to effectively communicate and connect with them.
Generation Y Values, Rugby Culture, and Social Media
In an age of globalization, millennials are the most racially and ethnically diverse population in the United States; However, this representation is not the only way they view diversity. They also see diversity as an as a means of inclusion – “the melding of varying experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives” – and long to find their place in the mix (Dickey, Lewis, 2010). These new generational values have been the crux at what has fueled the revival of rugby in the United States. And they happen to coincide with the “new ethos” of rugby, which has made the sport appealing to Gen Y. Because of so, millennials are also more open minded and permissive than previous generations (Dickey, Lewis, 2010).
In the book “The Oval World: A Global History of Rugby”, social historian Tony Collins explains the “new ethos” of rugby, and how Americans have been slowly rebranding rugby's “brutal, class-oriented origins” to a more open and inclusive system. For much of its history, rugby was bound up in a class war. Created by the elite in the Victorian era and popularized in the posh precincts of Britain's public schools, bigotry was prevalent, and common folk were barred from the game (Green, 2015, para. 3). This continued for more than a century, until the sport was reintroduced in the United States in the 1970s (Green, 2015, para. 8). Since then, the country has led the way in the diversification and democratization of rugby (Green, 2015). It heavily promotes the idea that anyone of any race, gender, sexuality, and background will have a place in this sport. Its two biggest contributions being the inclusion and rapid expansion of Women's rugby, and the fight to abolish the burden of racism and homophobia within the game (Curry, 2016). Demonstrating that “inclusion rather exclusion is the spirit of the American game” (Green, 2015, para. 8).
This code of inclusion has become the rugby's most attractive and marketable trait to Gen Y athletes. Rugby marketers and recruiters have recognized this advantage and have used social media to appeal to potential athletes by satisfying their need for a sense of inclusion and community. A study of social media perceptions and usage by millennials and relevant marketing implications show that users will willing go to social networking sites for information if they believe that they will find, and have the opportunity to, connect with others like themselves (Dickey, Lewis, 2010).
The Harvard Women's Rugby teams body positivity social media campaign perfectly reflects the value of this approach. Harvard Women's Rugby is the first Ivy League institution to sponsor a varsity rugby program, and is one of the most dominant teams in the US. These athletes are not only some of the smartest in the nation, but also the most athletic. To an outsider who wants to play rugby, this combination can be daunting; However, the team recruits and promotes not by boasting season records, but with their commitment to empower female athletes (“Rugged Grace”, 2014).
In 2016, Harvard Women's Rugby took action to promote positive body image for female athletes through its “Rugged Grace” project, hosted on the social media site Tumblr. It was a project consisted of a series of photos that honestly displayed what they loved about their body and their teammates bodies, in the hopes of opening a visual discussion about beauty, strength, and appreciation (“Rugged Grace”, 2014).
Figure 2: Rugged Grace Project Example
According to Kotcher, with today's millennial crowd, effective marketing is no longer determined by the reach and frequency of a message, but rather the impact and qualitative value of the message per user exposure. To track user expressions, instead, of user impressions, through the feedback of features such as the like and comments sections in social media. The project went viral among social media networks, and has been featured on websites including Today.com, Time.com, and HuffingtonPost.com (“Rugged Grace”, 2014). According to an email interview on October 5th, 2018, with their now graduated social media manager Delia Hellander, within the week of the project release, their Facebook and Twitter traffic increased near 230%, saw a 10% increase in Instagram and Twitter followers, and witnessed a 15% increase in highlight reel submissions and walk on requests for recruitment the following year. Hellander also listed a case of one ex-track star recruit Akweley Okine, who was too intimated to try out for the team, but decided to walk on after seeing the campaign. Since then, she has shown unbelievable talent and has been named 2017 Collegiate All American by USA Rugby.
The Rugged Grace project was just a small example of how social media can be utilized for a college team to increase exposure and maximize recruitment. Other high exposure women's and men's rugby teams such as Bowdoin College, Princeton University, and Boston University, have all completed similar campaigns in hopes to spark conversation on debated topics such as racism, sexual assault, and homophobia.
Since the boom of the rugby industry in the US, the collegiate sector has witnessed the most aggressive growth. To sustain this growth, marketers must adapt as fast, if not faster, than the changing market and environment. By understanding this generation's values and behaviors and how to leverage that information to increase online engagement, recruiters can better tailor marketing strategies for future generations of college rugby players. Studies have shown, that the next generation of college students, Gen Z, will have similar but amplified values of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. It will be important for recruiters to match their strategies with the magnitude of change. With rugby at a turning point of expansive and massive growth, maintaining the weight of collegiate athletes through more relatable recruitment methods will be key to the development and popularization of the sport in the United States.
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photographed 2018, July 15)
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