Rugby fans rejoice: There are more outlets for ‘niche’ sports than ever before

If you’re the NFL, NBA or MLB, finding distribution is pretty easy. With live sports being one of the few remaining things that can guarantee large viewing audiences, TV networks are willing to pay billions for the rights to broadcast games.

It’s a different story for more niche sports like rugby and lacrosse, which don’t command the type of viewership in the U.S. that football or basketball regularly get and, yet, still have dedicated fanbases. Take, for instance, rugby — it’s the second-most popular sport in the world with the 2015 Rugby World Cup final attracting more than 120 million viewers globally. On NBC Sports Network, which has the rights to the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the Sevens World Series and the Rugby World Cup, rugby games average 1 million viewers, according to Fortune.

And those are premier rugby events. For smaller competitions, the U.S. audience is smaller, which means rugby fans don’t have a lot of choices when it comes to watching the sport. It’s a void that Rugby International Marketing, a division of USA Rugby, is looking to fill with The Rugby Channel.

The Rugby Channel isn’t available on TV. Instead, fans can find it online, on iPhone and Android smartphones. Next month, it will launch on iPads and all of the major connected TV devices. Available both for free and a $4.99 monthly subscription, the channel offers live coverage of the USA men’s and women’s national teams, the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series and Europe’s Guinness Pro12 circuit. It also has archived clips of USA Rugby, the England team, former Rugby World Cups and other global competitions.

In developing the channel, a decision was made to focus on building it as a streaming platform rather than a TV network, according to Omnigon, the digital consulting firm behind it.

“The overhead associated with a TV channel placement — you have to be able to guarantee viewership that’s in the hundreds of thousands per broadcast, or it’s not going to make sense,” said David Nugent, chief commercial officer for Omnigon. “You can launch an OTT app and get tens of thousands of subscribers and make it a commercially viable business model, where on linear TV, that’s not possible.”

Nugent declined to name subscriber numbers for The Rugby Channel, which launched in April. But as the likes of DramaFever and Crunchyroll have proven with streaming platforms dedicated to other niche areas, the ultimate goal isn’t millions and millions of subscribers. “The people who are passionate about the sport, they’re watching for long periods of time,” said Nugent.

Streaming video in general is becoming increasingly important for niche sports in the U.S. — not just rugby. Major League Lacrosse makes all 63 of its regular-season games available on its Lax Network streaming app. (The league also has partnerships with some regional sports networks to air some games on TV as well as with ESPN to stream select games online.)

The league also has a partnership with Whistle Sports to distribute game highlights as well as create original social content. In the time that Whistle Sports — and before it The Lacrosse Network, a YouTube network acquired by Whistle Sports in 2014 — has worked with MLL, it’s been able to grow the league’s YouTube channel from 2,000 to 45,000 subscribers.

“If you claw and scramble to get one game on ESPN, you’ll have a two-hour time frame on ESPN, after which you don’t know where your community goes,” said Samir Chaudry, director of partnerships and programming strategy for Whistle Sports. “Tend to your community first, because until your community is strong, you can’t grow outside of it.”

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