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NEW YORK — NBC is making a bet that rugby, which draws big ratings in the U.K. and other parts of the world and has rapidly grown its player and fan base in the U.S., can attract solid American TV audiences.
NBC Sports and Universal Sports, a venture of NBC Sports and InterMedia Partners that features a range of Olympic sports, will present more than 15 hours of live coverage from the USA Sevens Rugby tournament in Las Vegas this weekend, marking the first time that the event will be aired live on U.S. network TV. The coverage comes under a deal that NBC struck.
Rugby is a contact sport played in 7 vs. 7 and 15-on-15 versions and is similar to football. It is played with an oval-shaped ball, allows running with the ball in hand, but allows no forward passes.
ADT, Bridgestone, Subway and Toyota have signed up as national broadcast sponsors, confirming expectations that the sport can attract blue-chip marketers.
NBC will have two broadcasts throughout the weekend with four hours of live coverage, including the final on Sunday afternoon and 3:30-6 p.m. ET Saturday coverage of the games England vs. France, USA vs. Samoa, and audience favorites New Zealand vs. Kenya.
Universalsports.com will stream the entire event live on a subscription basis along with replays, highlights and analysis.
Rugby Sevens, which will be an Olympic sport in 2016 along with golf, features seven players per team, seven-minute halves and speed, tackles and athleticism.
“Rugby has a rabid and growing fan base, and it looks great on TV, because of all the speed and action, especially when produced by people like our experienced NBC team” said Jon Miller, president, programming, NBC Sports and Versus. “There is no baggage in this country for the sport. We definitely expect that current fans will tune in, but we will also explain the rules and stories behind the players and teams and believe we can draw in new viewers” who haven’t seen the sport before.
Miller wouldn’t predict what kind of ratings the tournament would draw, but said “we are optimistic we will get an audience.”
This will only be the first rugby test of the year for the networks. NBC Sports and Universal Sports will continue their coverage of rugby throughout the year as they will serve as the exclusive U.S. TV homes of the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which features the sport’s 15-on-15 version and also includes the U.S. national team known as the Eagles, this fall in New Zealand. The 2007 Rugby World Cup drew an estimated 4.2 billion viewers worldwide. Once again, Universal Sports will provide most of the coverage, with NBC set to air the final.
Before the Cup, the two networks will also televise the 2011 Rugby Sevens Collegiate Championship this June in Philadelphia.
Last year’s first broadcast of the Sevens Collegiate Championship had a ratings high of 0.9 for its final.
According to a study by America’s Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, recently cited by the Economist, rugby was the fastest-growing team sport in the U.S. between 2007 and 2009. In 2009, about 750,000 Americans played rugby, up more than 20 percent from 2007, it said.
“The sport has great athletes, is young, easy to understand and fast-paced, and there are great-looking guys who perform at the highest level,” explained Jonathan First, president of USA Sevens. “It is perfect for TV, because it allows for natural commercial breaks and is perfect for people’s attention spans.”
Universal Sports also broadcasts such sports as gymnastics, figure skating and equestrian.
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