Rugby’s New Sponsor A Boon To Local Colleges?

A few weeks ago a report on Bloomberg News talked about the unabashed media opportunity that College BASS fishing afforded both competitors and brands. Since there was no formal NCAA sanction, athletes/competitors could get paid by brands when they entered their competitions. Recently there was a story about how E-Gaming was also becoming a varsity sport, albeit one not under NCAA prevue, so again an opportunity exists for some niche brands to work with athletes at colleges in competitions that get them more value than a traditionally sanctioned NCAA sport.

Another sport growing on all levels in and around the New York area, especially on the college side, is rugby. With the Olympics now in focus for 2016 for the seven on seven version of the sport, colleges are taking rugby more seriously than ever. Any countless number of schools in the NY area, from Manhattan College to Fordham to Hofstra, have had club rugby programs for years, but many are now considering elevating the sport to a varsity level, especially schools where football is not in the mix and where there is an interest and need to add more women’s sports on a cost-controlled level. The U.S. Military Academy, for example, is the latest local school to upgrade rugby to the varsity level. Can this forerunner of football be making a dent, and thus opening up new revenue streams, even without NCAA sanctioning?

The answer appears to be yes, with the latest good news coming on Monday when Penn Mutual, a more than a century old insurance company, decided that rugby was their gateway to college athletics, through rugby. Penn Mutual signed on to be the first title sponsor of both the Varsity Cup (in Utah) and the Collegiate Rugby Championships (in Philly) for three years, a big step for both events and for the sport in moving forward.

United World Sports, which puts on the largest annual events in rugby in the US in places like Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Philadelphia, and NBC were partners in the deal which gives Penn Mutual a very unique position with the younger and active demo in and around collegiate rugby.

“Our sponsorship is part of a long-term business-building strategy to extend the Penn Mutual brand to consumers, financial professionals, and student athletes,” added Eileen McDonnell, Penn Mutual’s Chairman, President & CEO in the release.

“Like rugby, Penn Mutual enjoys a long and esteemed history–167 years of service to our policyholders. And, like rugby, we are more cutting edge than ever, having doubled our market share since the financial crisis of 2008. Rugby provides a clean slate for us to share our optimistic view of how life insurance not only protects, but also allows people to do more in life and leave a lasting legacy. The sponsorship also gives us the opportunity to attract new talent by gaining exposure to the student athletes of major national colleges and universities.  All of us at Penn Mutual are excited about the possibilities afforded by The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship and The Penn Mutual Varsity Cup.”

The goal, or at least one of them, for both Penn Mutual and college rugby, is to turn PPL Park just across The Delaware River in Chester, Pa. into a larger festival of all things cool about college rugby, and make Philly the signature home, like Omaha is for college baseball.

It is also hoped that many of the local tri-state area schools who have rugby, there are over 40, see this as a great opportunity to grow their footprint and their athletic efforts with a new partner now investing in the sport and a championship that boasted mid-major schools like St. Joe’s and Drexel last year, not that far away. Rutgers vying for a title in rugby could make more sense in the short-term than anything in the Big 10.

Will this new partnership, along with the time United World Sports an NBC have invested make college rugby a go-to sport that challenges football in the years to come? Since it is not yet an NCAA-sanctioned sport there are some unique opportunities and challenges ahead, and on the business side, some brands that could come in, like a Penn Mutual, that do not need the sanction or huge investment that an official NCAA sponsor would need.

In the end, like lacrosse, rugby appears to be on the come for college athletics, and this past week’s deal will help make the sport, especially at the 7’s level, more of an option for schools in the area to gain a national foothold. Bass fishing and e-gaming? Not quite. Rugby has the better foothold.

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