By Kyle J. Conrad (SGB, May 2009)



Rugby is more than Aussie accents and striped shirts. Retailers looking for a boost in sales would be wise to take note of the growing interest in this sport


When Americans think of football, there's only one version of the sport on their mind. In other parts of the world that's not quite the case. Indeed, despite the fact that rugby served as the primary influence to the rules and playing style of American football, it remains somewhat of an unknown sport to the majority of Americans. What Europeans and Australians see as a highly organized and deep-rooted, high-contact sport is often regarded as a curiosity by Americans.


That mindset is changing quickly. As organizers form new leagues and teams, the playing fields of America are being filled with enthusiastic rugby players.


According to the most recent statistics available from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), there were 617,000 rugby players in the U.S. in 2007, up from 514,000 in 2006. Of the 617,000 rugby players, 301,000 played 1-7 days a year; 71,000 played 8-14 days a year; and 245,000 played 15+ days a year.


In fact, USA Rugby, the national governing body for rugby in the U.S., reports that rugby membership has increased by 25 percent in the last four years. Meanwhile, overall membership in the sport over the past ten years has increased 159 percent, including a 229 percent spike in female participation.


Kristen Richeimer, director of membership for USA Rugby, says the sport is seeing growth across all factions, but high school boys' and girls' participation has been the primary driver. She says, "We've seen that lots of kids are shut out of many mainstream sports by age 11, and we're [conveying to them] that there's a spot for them in rugby to participate and excel."


For the retailer that wants to take advantage of enthusiastic rugby players, there are several key strategies to keep in mind.


Ashley Mefford, sales manager at Red Rhino Sports in Austin, TX notes that rugby equipment is very specific to positions, so the retailer should make sure they are properly educated about the sport before they order inventory and interact with customers. Mefford says the best way to promote equipment for a brick-and-mortar retailer is to contact local teams and leagues to establish relationships. Mefford adds that Red Rhino Sports does the majority of its business online, and she strongly suggests that other rugby retailers establish an online presence to move inventory more efficiently.


Chris Palombo, sales manager for Rugby Imports, based in East Providence, RI, says the retail opportunities for rugby equipment have been largely overlooked. "There is rugby in every community across the U.S. There is a market for all retailers," he insists. Palombo adds that it's important for retailers to conduct a thorough market profile of rugby players in the area so they can order inventory that is targeted to the correct demographic. He advises retailers not to make bulk purchases, but to strategically select inventory and then order on-demand depending on response from the consumer. Palombo says, "Stock less product but more display items so you can gauge interest. It's a lower risk investment to stock fewer items and then do team order sales through on-demand orders."


As more rugby leagues and teams are established, team sales opportunities will follow. To push product, Palombo says e-mail blasts to local team members have been a successful tool for moving rugby apparel and equipment.



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