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Volume 21 No. 31
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Rugby gives Penn Mutual route to millennials

Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. CEO Eileen McDonnell knows her board expects a business plan when she proposes a $1.5 million, three-year sponsorship. But she followed a hunch last fall when she pushed to align Penn Mutual with the sport of rugby, securing naming rights to the Collegiate Rugby Championship and the Varsity Cup Championship, the company’s first sports affiliations.

“One can call it risky; I look at it as very opportunistic,” McDonnell said. Her board backed her, but she concedes: “We signed the deal on blind faith and haven’t looked back since.”

Penn Mutual has made rugby the center of its corporate identity.
With the collegiate championships set for this weekend in Penn Mutual’s hometown of Philadelphia, McDonnell already is planning to extend the deal with rights holder United World Sports beyond its 2017 expiration. The Varsity Cup Championship, a 12-team college tournament also owned by United World Sports, ended earlier this month.

In just a few months, the insurer has become an enthusiastic part of the stakeholders invested in making rugby the next big team sports trend in the U.S. McDonnell says the sport is allowing Penn Mutual to reach millennials and a more ethnically diverse audience in ways no other sponsorship can.

White Plains, N.Y.-based United World Sports, a sports and entertainment company that owns and operates several rugby and soccer properties, and NBC Sports first got together in 2009, looking to build a market for rugby soon after the International Olympic Committee announced that the sport would return to the Summer Games next year in Rio.

NBC won’t make final decisions on Olympic programming until next spring, but there’s a sense that rugby could join curling and beach volleyball as formerly obscure sports that captured the American audience’s imagination during the Olympics, said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC and NBC Sports Network.

NBC isn’t banking on that type of Olympic splash. But network executives believe in the sport regardless.

“The initial attraction value of the Olympics was a game-changer but rugby, since 2007 or 2008, has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States,” said Jonathan First, United World Sports president.

Aside from Penn Mutual, Subway restaurants also bought media and a sponsorship slot for the collegiate championship at Philadelphia’s PPL Park. Subway is sponsoring a tackling safety program during the weekend, which includes NFL football players and rugby experts teaching safer methods. Companies such as AIG, MillerCoors and DHL have bought time on NBC’s other rugby broadcasts, which have delivered reliable audiences.

Ad sales are going well, said Gary Quinn, NBC vice president of programming, as marketers see a chance to get in on the rugby ground floor. Miller said the Collegiate Rugby Championship isn’t profitable, but it’s close to breaking even. “It’s not a money-loser per se,” he said. “We see it as a good long-term investment.”

This weekend’s collegiate championship will air for four hours on NBC and 3 1/2 hours on NBC Sports Network. The cable network also has shown the final match of the Varsity Cup Championship the last two years.

The January showing of USA Sevens Rugby, another United World Sports property, averaged 1.23 million viewers, NBC’s most watched rugby event yet, the network said. Like USA Sevens Rugby, the Olympics and the Collegiate Rugby Championship play the stripped-down, fast-paced, 7-on-7 version of the sport rather than the traditional 15-on-15 variety.

Penn Mutual’s agreement includes up to 50 30- and 60-second spots spread across its titled events as well as on other NBC Sports properties such as English Premier League soccer. Since the company signed its rugby deal, the insurer has added several new activations, signing six college clubs and donating $16,000 for their equipment. (Rugby is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, so college clubs are largely privately funded.)

In a matter of months, Penn Mutual also has made rugby the center of its corporate identity, using a rugby theme for an annual report and nine campus recruiting visits. Using a rugby focus, Penn Mutual’s local office near TCU signed up 30 business students interested in interviewing with the company; usually such campus visits lure five or fewer recruits, McDonnell said.

“There are other companies out there competing for the same great talent,” she said. “We just need to get to the front of the line.”