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Innovation

The US Rugby Players Association and Its Goals for the Future of the Game

The USRPA was launched with one thing in mind: to promote, advance, and protect the interests of national rugby players.

Adam White

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Scully (far left) is helping lead the charge for USRPA.

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

Blaine Scully didn’t start out as a rugby lifer, but he’s made it his life’s work to increase opportunities for the elite men and women who play the sport.

A three-sport athlete in high school, Scully didn’t find the sport of rugby until he enrolled in college at UCLA. Spending two years there before transferring to Cal, Scully would go on to rack up accolades that included being a four-time All-American, captain of the 2011 USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Touring Squad, and winning two national titles with Cal.

Now, the current captain of the USA Eagles Men’s Team is on a mission to ensure rugby continues to grow in the U.S. and with that growth, create meaningful opportunities for the country’s national team members. The vehicle: the first players union in American rugby — the U.S. Rugby Players Association (USRPA).

“There was a small group of us that had an interest in building a players association because many of us had been part of other professional environments where we saw the value of having someone at the table to represent and speak on behalf of the athletes,” said Scully. “I came to the realization that to move this idea forward, someone was going to have to own it. That someone just happened to be me.”

In a sport where schedules are traditionally hectic between national team and club competitions and tours, Scully — along fellow Eagle James Gillenwater — felt that an organization was needed to present a united front, give all parties involved the chance to have a collective conversation and advocate for the highest possible player experience for all national team athletes.

Chatting over Skype with Gillenwater to architect the organization, Scully would use nights after training to learn as much as he could about players unions, design what the structure should look like and try to build support for the association at the grassroots level amongst the female and male players.

“One of the things that makes our players association so unique is it’s inclusive of both men and women,” said Scully. “We thought that together, as a unit, this would be not only the best way to collectively have a conversation, but that moving forward in a joint capacity would enable us to have greater impact for all of our athletes across the sport.”

READ MORE: Meet the New Creative Team for the Alliance of American Football

It took three years of back and forth between Scully, Gillenwater, and players such as USA Women’s Eagles Sevens Olympic Captain Kelly Griffin, to truly get the USRPA off the ground.

“Giving players a voice and empowering them to have a say in their own player welfare builds the foundation for a strong and successful teams,” says Griffin. “Having a player association is also very important for the continued growth of rugby in the USA.”

Not only did Scully have to educate himself and the others he hoped a players association would support, he also had to educate USA Rugby’s leadership team — the sport’s governing body — on why the establishment of a players association would benefit the organization.

“It’s to the governing body’s benefit to have athletes at the table, having conversations in a meaningful way and really contribute, because, frankly, they’re incredibly valuable resources,” said Scully. “I think once you realize the kind of collaboration that is possible and what can actually come from it, mutual growth can happen and we all become advocates of the same unified vision. When you look around the world, the healthiest rugby playing countries and unions are supported by an engaged playing base – in the form of a vibrant Association.

A far more entrenched sport abroad, Scully argued to the governing body that to enable an emerging sport like rugby to grow some real footing inside the U.S., there had to be some sort of consensus when it came to working together.

The development and now operation of the USRPA received a real boost from Michael Young, a Chicago labor attorney with a passion for rugby. Having found the sport while studying in Ireland during college, Young went on to found a rugby club for Chicago-based lawyers.  Young was connected to Scully through a mutual friend to discuss the developing players union, and the opportunity of marrying his profession and passion together.

READ MORE: Pac-12 Network Grows Viewership Thanks to Cross-Platform Integration

“What struck me as most incredible about USRPA was the truly organic drive behind all of this. I was inspired by our players’ passion to band together on their own and not just simply join an already established labor union for financial support or help organizing,” said Young, now the USRPA executive director. “From the outset, they have chosen to take complete ownership of USRPA and build it from the ground up, to be 100 percent run by the players for the players.”

The USRPA has also found critical partners in athlete brand strategy consultancy, BrandForward, and the NFLPA, which has helped the USRPA through its business unit REP Worldwide to build out the group licensing approach and set the table for the association’s deal with Amazon — something that Scully points to as a great step forward for not only the association, but the sport of rugby as a whole.

“Merch by Amazon, which is the platform we are using, offered us a low barrier of entry and allowed us to get set up right away and start turning things around quickly,” said Scully. “Going from having no player merchandise offering to having the opportunity for fans to be able to jump on Amazon and Prime something to their house has been really cool for us.”

BrandForward is working with the USRPA on crafting its player-centric brand strategy and a professional development program for their members.

“We feel confident in the steps we’re taking to make a positive impact and grow the quality of the experience for our athletes. Our main objective is to leave the jersey in a better place.” – Blaine Scully

A self-described bootstrapped startup, the USRPA have now given itself a chance to “co-write” the future of rugby in the states, something that just three years ago wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of everyone involved.

And what exactly does that future look like? A modernized game and governance structure.

“We’ve already started initial conversations around a collective bargaining agreement with USA Rugby that will provide a standard agreement across the board for both our men and women,” said Scully. “The goal is to create a professionalized and proactive environment that is different than the environment that has existed for the past 20 years.”

(*BrandForward is a proud partner of Front Office Sports.)

Adam is the Founder and CEO of Front Office Sports. A University of Miami Alum, Adam has worked for opendorse, the Fiesta Bowl, and the University of Miami Athletic Department. He can be reached at adam@frntofficesport.com.

Innovation

A Look at Richmond Raceway’s Modernized Infield

FanGrounds is the Centerpiece of Richmond Raceway Reimagined, $30 million Infield Redevelopment Project, at America’s Premier Short Track.

Kraig Doremus

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Richmond Raceway’s modernized infield is set for its spring debut this weekend and offers fans a variety of unique vantage points of all the action taking place at the 3/4 mile D-shaped oval. Image from Richmond Raceway.

When NASCAR rolls into Richmond Raceway for the Toyota Spring Race Weekend beginning  April 12, fans will experience the spring debut of the DC Solar FanGrounds, a key initiative by Richmond to modernize its track.

The FanGrounds launched during Richmond’s first-ever NASCAR Playoff Race Weekend last fall as part of Richmond Raceway Reimagined, a $30 million infield redevelopment project. Track president Dennis Bickmeier expects a positive reaction from race fans for the spring debut.

“People will be surprised by the access they have at our facility,” said Bickmeier. “We could show a video on it and talk about it, but for people to experience it for the first time last fall was remarkable. We’ve taken testimonials from the September weekend to help promote the FanGrounds for this weekend’s doubleheader.”

One of the unique aspects of the FanGrounds is not only the access it grants fans, but also that everything is centralized in one location.

“We’ve programmed the entire infield with driver Q&A’s, music, food and everything fans want for an authentic, engaging race experience,” said Bickmeier. “It’s basically its own village. The access fans get to the cars and race teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage is special and something we’re proud to give them at Richmond Raceway.

From driver appearances to exclusive activations and even the pre-race ceremonies, the FanGrounds contains activities for all racing fans attending the action at Richmond Raceway.

From the beginning, Richmond’s executive team decided on a strategy of involving longstanding partners in the redesign. To that end, they approached the likes of MARS, the  Virginia Tourism Corporation, Markel, Virginia Lottery and Eternal Fan about deepening their ties to the track.

“It was a new attraction and gave us something fresh to have a conversation with our partners about,” said Bickmeier. “We came to the table with a new way for them to engage with their customers, and we knew going in that every partner is different. We went to a variety of prospects and had different conversations with each partner about how we could help them meet their objectives in the FanGrounds.”

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

For MARS, its executives wanted the chance to have one-on-one interactions with fans and promote its brand, while also showing off its No. 18 Toyota Camry show car and allowing fans to sample products.  

The Virginia Tourism Corporation brought its storied“Virginia is for Racing Lovers” messaging to the FanGrounds. In addition to their space in one of the FanGrounds’ neighborhoods, the tourism center has a standalone welcome center to help fans make the most of the experience in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Perhaps one of the most unique activations came following Richmond Raceway’s conversations with the team at Eternal Fan. Eternal Fan got involved with track’s new pedestrian tunnel and launched a Fan Memories program, in which fans can purchase plaques and have them placed on the wall of the pedestrian tunnel, cementing their place as a loyal Richmond Raceway supporter.

“The team at Eternal Fan wanted to be involved with the new memories that fans would make in the modernized infield,” said Bickmeier. “There are many places where you see engraved bricks, but these plaques are truly something different. The Fan Memories idea was not only a first for us but also a first for Eternal Fan.”

Lastly, the track wanted to upgrade its luxury experience and feels it did so with the Victory Lane Club, which will make its spring debut this upcoming weekend and features benefits like access to the driver and crew chief meeting plus a weekend FanGrounds pass. The team at Richmond toured many stadiums through the Southeast, and even nationally, with a focus on what the stick-and-ball sports have done to draw inspiration for the club.

“It’s a small club with slightly more than 100 members,” said Bickmeier. “You see a lot of court and field-level hospitality in traditional stick-and-ball sports. But in racing, hospitality is typically in suites above the grandstands. We wanted hospitality at the ground level, so that’s where our inspiration came from for the Victory Lane Club.”

The Victory Lane Club also features unique vantage points, as fans are able to peer into the garages and see NASCAR teams prepare their cars ahead of the weekend. There’s also rooftop access to see the stock cars rolled out onto the starting grid. . A short trip outside and on to the roof, yes, fans are given access to the roof of the club, provides a breathtaking view of the 3,300-pound stock cars as they are rolled out onto the starting grid.

READ MORE: Understanding Partnerships With an Inside Look at Chip Ganassi Racing’s Strategy

The club is all inclusive with a multitude of benefits including a hot pass, access to the driver and crew chief meeting, and a weekend FanGrounds pass.

With race week officially here and Bickmeier believes Richmond’s upgrades will satisfy fans who have come to expect a willingness from the track to push its boundaries.  

“We’ve gained a reputation at Richmond for being willing to try different things and not just sticking to the status quo,” said Bickmeir. “We did that with the way we structured the FanGrounds and the Victory Lane Club. The reaction in the fall was spectacular and we expect that to continue for the spring debut over the Toyota Spring Race Weekend.”

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Major League Soccer Seeks Digital Innovation Through Four-Pronged Approach

Digital is the future for Major League Soccer, and a multi-faceted strategy could one day take the league to new heights.

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Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For Major League Soccer, the pathway toward innovation begins on the pitch.

“Look in the stadiums, the fan experience is different than any other professional sport,” Schlosser said Chris Schlosser, MLS senior vice president and general manager of MLS Digital at a South by Southwest panel. “How do we lean into that and make it come alive? How do we translate that if you’re at home the couch?”

He expects the answer to come through digital thanks to partnerships with companies like Twitter and R/GA, a company helping connect MLS to emerging technology companies. In fact, Twitter Sports Partner Manager Will Exline believes social media could eventually lift MLS to unprecedented heights.

“If you look, you see how radio helped baseball, TV helped football and basketball,” Exline said. “MLS has lived in the digital world. As fast as platforms are evolving, MLS is just as quick to try new things.”

READ MORE: Simple Hashtags Elevated by Scarves Illuminate MLS Content Innovation

Schlosser said MLS Digital works with a four-pronged approach: Fan connection, on-field talent, stadium experience and media quality.

According to R/GA Global Chief Operating Officer Stephen Plumlee, there’s a current push to better connect fans to the teams and each other in order to better develop content ties. It isn’t that fan attention spans are necessarily shorter. Consumers just have so many options at their fingertips.

Consequently, Plumlee says, “The challenge is personalization. There has to be an authentic experience delivered to what the fan wants.”

Along the same lines, Exline said Twitter will continue to move towards individual user personalization to help the league and individual teams better target users and fan bases. He cited last years all-star voting process as one prominent example, which allowed users to tweet their vote, which returned a reply with a video of the player thanking a user.

That personalization also extends to viewership habits. Schlosser believes it’s important for MLS to provide fans the capacity to watch from any device. Within those device boundaries, they also hope to offer custom angles and other individual-choice options like advanced data and sports betting.

Schlosser also brought up the future, and current use, of artificial intelligence to generate user-specific highlight packages of specific content.

“I can give you a highlight of just your team’s play without having a human cut the highlight,” he said. “I can give the favorite player’s best goals. Maybe [the fan] misses a game and has four minutes and wants a recap, maybe 20 minutes.

“We’re starting to open those opportunities.”

Eventually, that could even feed into talent evaluation. Schlosser wondered aloud whether augmented reality could one day present skill challenges and judge a player through those ratings without ever scouting someone in person.

“That would allow a team to identify them and bring them into the academy to start the formal training process,” he said. “It could result in seeing thousands of more players than we could see today.”

READ MORE: ‘We Are LAFC’ Shows Off Exclusive Content Opportunity for MLS, ESPN

MLS took plenty of lumps when it was starting for being different than the global game of soccer. Now, the league is embracing that differentiation and will keep building on it with digital, Schlosser said.

“One of the big shifts is this idea we have to be authentic to the global soccer community,” he said. “There were these crazy rules when MLS first started … we very quickly learned that’s not the right way. But we are also finding North American soccer is a different thing. Soccer here is a little American, European, South American, and that changes from city to city.

“We can lean into that and we don’t have to apologize. We have to celebrate the unique differences and let them come through the atmospheres in the stands.”

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The Story Behind the Giants’ New $10 Million Scoreboard

Ahead of this year’s MLB season, the Giants are set to unveil a new scoreboard that at over 150 ft by 70ft, will be the third largest in the league.

Front Office Sports

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Image via the San Francisco Giants

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

With Spring Training underway, baseball is inching its way closer to the start of another season.

Although we don’t know if the Giants have the inside track to signing Bryce Harper, we were able to sit down with Senior Vice President & CIO Bill Schlough to take a look at their brand new scoreboard and why the team invested $10 million into the product.

$10 million is a lot to spend on a scoreboard. I’m assuming much of the cost will be recouped through increased advertising opportunities. Outside of fan experience, was that one of the other driving factors when it came to making this investment? 

“If you think $10 million is a lot to spend on a scoreboard, you should see how much it will cost to deliver 4K content to that board!  But I have to be honest, for the Giants, “increased advertising opportunities” was NEVER part of the discussion. This is all about the fan experience, 100%. Our board was the second oldest and fifth smallest in MLB, and after 12 seasons it was definitely due for a refresh.  Our fans deserve a first-class experience at Oracle Park, and we’re going to give it to them. And with our new 4K board, it’s not just baseball games that will be enhanced.”

“We’re confident that all events at Oracle Park will benefit from this new screen—from private screenings, to corporate event branding, to convention gatherings, to public event enhancements and beyond. So if there are increased revenue opportunities from our new Diamond Vision, I’d say they will come from increased attendance and incremental events more than advertising. We didn’t invest $10 million for a glorified billboard, this is all about enhancing the experience for our fans.”

How much did the impact of landing outside events play a role in going forward with this decision? Does having this open up new opportunities? 

“Events that are complementary to our baseball schedule – both in-season when the Giants are on the road and during the off-season – are a huge source of pride for our organization, not to mention a fantastic way to develop new partnerships and opportunities. Giants Enterprises, the entrepreneurial arm of the San Francisco Giants, hosts more than 250 events per year, including concerts, private corporate events, international sporting events like Rugby World Cup Sevens, unique activations such as Topgolf Crush and more.”

“The Giants Enterprises team does a phenomenal job filling our calendar with events on a year-round basis and by continuing to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology and venue upgrades, we will undoubtedly be able to attract new business. Upgrading our scoreboard presents a multitude of opportunities for clients using our facility so it was absolutely a big consideration when moving forward with this project. We are currently exploring new innovative ideas that we can activate on for returning and annual events that will help take their experience here at Oracle Park to the next level. We look forward to pushing the boundaries and continuing to innovate in strategic ways to fully maximize the capabilities of our new scoreboard.”

When looking at comparable screens and different sporting venues, which ones did you look to for inspiration? What did you want to differently?

“We definitely did our homework and there are plenty of other venues that are worthy of emulation.  The Cowboys really started the “bigger is better” trend a decade ago with their record-setting massive DiamondVision display at AT&T Stadium. Vivek Ranadivé and the Sacramento Kings were also trendsetters, launching the first 4K video board in sports back in 2016.  In baseball, the Indians, Mariners and Angels are now the three biggest.”

“In our travels, we also visited the Rockies, Ravens and our longtime friend in Lincoln, the recently retired Godfather of HuskerVision, Shot Kleen at the University of Nebraska.  In the end, we figured that given that we won’t be doing this again anytime soon, we shouldn’t make any compromises.  So we went big (153’ x 71’, 3rd largest in MLB), high quality (1st 4K capable board in MLB) and chose to stick with DiamondVision from Mitsubishi Electric—who we consider to be the best video board manufacturer in the business.”

If you could play any video game on the screen, which would it be and why? 

“From a purely nostalgic standpoint, I would want to play Goldeneye 007 on N64. That said, the graphics and that game wouldn’t do our new scoreboard justice. A fun, competitive multi-player game would definitely be a joy to watch so perhaps a game like Fortnite. Above all else, playing MLB The Show 2019 and watching Buster Posey hit a homerun to centerfield while watching it on the centerfield scoreboard would be a total trip.”

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

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