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Pro Rugby launch in US could be a game changer for South African players

Pro Rugby launch in US could be a game changer for South African players

Over the weekend, the first ever professional rugby league launched in America. While the league is still in its infancy, its owner is making all the right noises to lead you to believe that this has the potential to grow into something intriguing, not just for local talent in the US but for players across the world searching for career opportunities in sport. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

When it comes to sport yielding big business and opportunities for players, few countries can rival the structures of Americanised sports. From baseball to basketball with American football lobbed in between, the Americans know how to make money from sport.

Over the weekend, the first ever pro rugby league was launched in the US. The establishment of the league is all largely down to one man: Doug Schoninger. A little over two years ago, Schoninger didn’t really know much about rugby. What he did know is that he wanted to buy a major sports team. While none was available at the time, a chance meeting with a promoter who wanted to bring rugby to America would lead to his “Aha!” moment. The promoter’s idea was somewhat different to the vision that is currently playing out in America.

The promo guy wanted millions of dollars, big stadiums and, in essence, to compete with the NFL. But for Schoninger, this wouldn’t do. While he didn’t know much about rugby, he did know a thing or two about business. At the time of this chance meeting, he was the head of Stadium Capital Financing Group, a full service provider that worked with sports teams to finance stadium construction, renovation, and expansion.

So, with a bit of data crunching, including knowing that rugby union is the fastest growing sport in America, Schoninger set to work. Last year on 21 April, World Rugby and USA Rugby granted him permission to operate America’s first pro league, and it’s been a hard slog to get to where he is now. Things have moved quickly, but not without plans. Schoninger is starting out small. The teams are set up mostly in the west of America, where rugby is more popular, and he is using mostly small stadiums. He wants to keep that smallness and colosseum feel of the sport to draw people in because he knows that he cannot compete with the NFL, not yet anyway.

That tight-knit community feel might well turn out to be his biggest success. In the UK, for example, community football clubs in the lower divisions have strong support bases and if Schoninger’s Pro Rugby can replicate that model, he’ll be well in for establishing something bigger and greater. Central to that expansion will be the broadcasting of the fixtures. At present, all matches are broadcast for free around the globe on aol.com and also being beamed on cable in the States.

The launch of Pro Rugby in America could not have come at a better time. The US Sevens team are set to compete in the Olympics later this year and good performance there can only serve to ignite a dormant passion in fans who might only show a passive interest in the sport at the moment. The most encouraging thing about Schoninger’s approach, perhaps, is his realism. When taking “non-American sports” to America, the solution for many investors has often been to shower it in money. This has had varying levels of success, but Schoninger is keeping a level head.

You do the best you can do. And that doesn’t mean throwing money at every problem. It means making the right decisions based on the right data,” he said in an interview with The Guardian.

He has committed to backing the league for three years and while there are currently no big sponsorships or media deals, there is no doubt that they will come as the sport’s popularity grows in America and the league starts to gain international interest.

With that international interest, it’s no doubt that it could become a game changer, especially for players who have fallen by the wayside elsewhere, particularly in South Africa.

If there is one thing that American sporting teams like to do, it’s to win. It seems only natural then that, as the league grows, so will the recruitment base. American sport tends to want the best of everything, including some of the best talent. While the over-arching mandate of the league is to foster local talent, there is no doubt that they will be spreading their feelers internationally to recruit experienced players from across the globe who can help with that.

Currently, just two out of the five coaches are American. Two are from Ireland and one is from England. Four South Africans have already found their way into two various squads. Pedrie Wannenburg, who began his career at the Bulls, captains the Denver team. He is joined by two fellow South Africans at Denver – Armandt Peens and Martin Knoetze. Charlie Purdon is the other South African on the roster, playing for San Diego.

But this league doesn’t only offer playing careers for South Africans. It also offers coaching opportunities. Three of the five teams have South Africans on their coaching staff. While some of them, like Matt Hawkins, who is assistant coach with San Diego, have been in the States for all of their playing careers, it is not too far-fetched to envision the forgotten brains of South African rugby being lured across the pond as the league expands, especially when money starts rolling in. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Bryan Habana dives to score a try against Samoa during the Rugby World Cup 2015 Pool B match South Africa vs Samoa in Villa Park in Birmingham, Britain, 26 September 2015. EPA/DAVID JONES

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