Maintaining a distinct U.S. flavor.
You’d be hardpressed to beat Chris Babiash’s perspective on U.S. rugby. His Minnesota-based company, Rugby Athletic, provides teams across the country with equipment and apparel. From a fan’s perspective, seeing the ranks of fellow rugby fans swell is evidence enough of the sport’s rapid growth. From Babiash’s point of view, however, tracking growth is done in two columns. In one, the increasing number of fans and participants. In the other, business development. A strong business model creates an environment that can support the growing fandom of rugby and foster even more growth. Without it, that growth can flounder as fans are left wanting more. In other words, a typical rugby fan gauges rugby’s success by looking around the stands on game day and comparing the present to the past. Babiash looks at a team’s business plan and thinks about the future.
U.S. rugby is in a transitional state, from loosely organized weekend clubs scattered across the country to a network of teams and leagues that are operating with the mindset of a professional organization. Babiash said that today’s environment is markedly different than the conditions that existed even 12 months ago. The world is taking notice. “The biggest battle we have right now is dealing with everyone who wants a piece of the U.S. market,” Babiash said. “The people that have been in the U.S. business as long as we have are trying to grow, but there’s a ton of brands that are global — from China, the U.K., Australia, Ireland — that are now trying to sell direct into U.S. market.” While an influx of people entering a market can be a challenge for those already doing business, it’s also a sign of a market’s potential. For those looking for hard evidence that rugby’s growth is real, this is it.
As the business model of rugby continues to mature, some similarities to other professional sports emerge: A more robust game-day stadium experience, increased team engagement with the community at non-rugby events, a lively social media and internet presence that lets fans follow the team between games. Those similarities notwithstanding, Babiash said that U.S. rugby has diverged in many ways from the template followed by most major sports in the U.S. “One thing we see as the sport grows is that the US is starting to take on a Euro model of rugby structure,” he said. “That means you have a team like the Glendale Raptors elite men’s team, but alongside that you also have a women’s elite team, multiple development teams, a youth program: It’s club structure.” Babiash said other teams are adopting that model, which has propelled success at Infinity Park. “As a supplier, we see that overseas. We’ve seen a lot more organization like this in the U.S. over the last 18 months as teams develop. Your better teams across the country are starting to have high school, middle school, youth, and women’s programs. That all funnels into the success of the same club instead of each branch trying to make it on their own.” That model offers an enticing alternative to the traditional major sports model. While experiences with the latter can be expensive, exclusive, and passive, rugby’s club model is affordable, inclusive, and participatory.
Babiash said that maintaining a distinct U.S. flavor within that global model will help shape an identity that is distinctly “U.S.” As an equipment provider, one of the ways Babiash contributes to that U.S. identity is by offering a line of products made stateside, called Ameruckan Made Rugby. Rugby Athletic is deeply involved with developing U.S. brands and currently provides equipment and apparel to hundreds of teams in 49 states (Hawaii: you’re on notice). Rugby Athletic is also the exclusive provider of apparel for Glendale men’s and women’s elite teams and has been a sponsor of the Glendale Raptors and Infinity Park for over six years.
Babiash’s passion doesn’t lie in shipping shirts to teams. After all, it doesn’t take much to play. “It’s a very simple sport,” he said. “You need a rugby ball and a mouthguard. You don’t need all the pads and gloves.” Instead, with each box of equipment his company produces, Babiash sees an opportunity to help a team tell its story. “I think the biggest mistake that most clubs make is that they see themselves as just a rugby club. The premier teams understand the value in their brand. At that higher level, it’s not just about the guys on the field — it’s about what you are doing in the community, what else you’re doing to market your team to grow your audience.” For Babiash, differentiation is key. “Don’t devalue your team by looking like every other team. Too many rugby teams choose a color and put their logo over the top left chest. That’s it. How weird would it be if other teams wore the NFL’s Denver Broncos jersey, just with different colors?”
This problem might not be evident to Raptors fans. Babiash calls the Raptors “the most professional team we have in the US right now.” The Raptors have spent years developing an identity through effective visual branding, social media outreach, stadium experience, community outreach, and more. Babiash said the Raptors also excel at working with companies to achieve mutual success. “There’s immense value for me to work with them,” he said. “They understand it’s not just about taking, not just ‘what will you do for us?’ Glendale understands that we’ll do things for them. But in order to create a return on investment for us. They’re willing to expose us to people. I’m not interested in advertising, I’m interested in partnering.” It works for Glendale, but in order to develop a true national rugby culture, more teams need to adopt a similar mindset.
Most rugby teams in the U.S. aren’t at the same level as the Raptors. Most are trying to graduate from weekend warrior status. For that majority of the U.S. rugby market, Rugby Athletic provides a place where teams can help build out an identity in addition to getting equipment. Rugby Athletic provides logo design, writes press releases, and develops social media and e-commerce outlets. “In essence, we provide all those services for free for clubs that are ordering their gear from us,” he said. “We aren’t the cheapest guys on the block, but the people that understand see the value in what we’re doing.” A few minutes on their website quickly reveals that Rugby Athletic don’t simply drag and drop team logos on different color shirts. Each uniform is built from the ground up. Each tells a story.
Photo by Seth McConnell