NBC Looks to Score With Rugby

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The net gambles on the popular global sport as the first U.S. broadcaster to air World Cup games.

Forget the Super Bowl -- the year's biggest global sporting event is about to air on NBC. For the first time, a U.S. broadcaster will show three games of the Rugby World Cup, which takes place in New Zealand from Sept. 9 to Oct. 23. It is expected to draw a global audience similar to the previous edition, which attracted 4.2 billion cumulative viewers in 2007, according to the International Rugby Board. That's well behind soccer's World Cup, but it ranks as the world's third-largest sports event (the Summer Olympics are No. 1).

The rugby competition has been available in the U.S. only on pay-per-view or via closed circuit at pubs, with the former Fox Sports World network airing tape-delayed coverage in 1999 and 2003. But while the U.S. team, the Eagles, isn't expected to make it out of the pool stage, rugby is one of the country's fastest-growing participation sports, and it has passionate fans.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association says about 750,000 Americans played rugby in 2009, up more than 20 percent from 2007. "We are very interested in growing the sport in this country," says Jon Miller, president of programming at NBC Sports. "Rugby demos are highly educated and a very desirable audience for a lot of blue-chip marketers such as automotive, telecoms and financial services. Those are the audiences advertisers always try to reach."

That's one reason the lesser-known Universal Sports cable network, which covers Olympic sports year-round and is available in 63 million homes -- and in which NBC bought a small stake in 2008 -- acquired rights to this year's Cup and the next in 2015, outbidding Fox and ESPN. It will air seven tournament games this year, and NBC increased its commitment from two games to three.

The company won't disclose how much it paid for the package, but executives say the investment will be worth the effort.

"Rugby is popular among the U.S. upper classes," says Larry DeGaris, director of the sports marketing program at the University of Indianapolis. About NBC's first-time U.S. airing of Cup games, he adds, "I wouldn't characterize it as a test as much as an introduction."