Nishant Nereyeth is the Director of Marketing and Operations at Major League Rugby, the professional rugby league that represents the highest level of competition in North America. Nereyeth joins us to talk about how this relatively new sports league embraced eSports and virtual events to stay relevant to fans during COVID and how they are looking toward the future.
Topics We Discuss
- Launching a new professional sport in the United States
- Expanding MLR’s fan base through virtual events
- Staying relevant during COVID with eSports and a virtual draft
- Rethinking broadcast production through a virtual lens
- The other professional sports organizations MLR looks to for inspiration
Listen to the Audio Interview Here
On learning to prepare for anything by managing ultramarathons in remote parts of India:
“You could encounter problems such as a bullock cart blocking the path. I know it sounds stereotypically Indian, but that’s genuinely an issue we faced. It made for solid event management experience, because the things you have to think about are things that you don’t think about.”
On closing out the season early and creating MLR’s first virtual event:
“We were the first sports league to announce a virtual competition—we moved from playing rugby on the field to playing Rugby 20, which is a video game. For this, we had players from each team representing their home markets and teams and had a little competition over the next three weeks. That was a fantastic experience for all involved and, of course, for the fans.
On launching the first virtual event for the MLR:
“We didn’t know if we could pull it off, but we decided to make the announcement anyway. I think that this decision was a conscious one on our part because it served as an impetus for us to really chase after it and make sure that we did it. It was key to make that quick announcement and show that we’re nimble.”
On rethinking production and media for both physical and virtual events:
“We want to do what’s best for our partners, both media and otherwise. One thing that we’re rethinking is our broadcast product and how we can enhance what we’re doing from a TV perspective. As for OTT, do we go with existing providers? Do we create our own solutions? Those are things we’re talking about.”
Do you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and some of the roles and responsibilities that you have for Major League Rugby?
Sure. I grew up in India and like any good Indian boy, I got an engineering degree; but my passion was always sport. Once I graduated from engineering college, I worked for a company that organized marathons, which are the most complex sporting events, in my opinion.
Eventually I came over to the U.S. to study at UMass (MBA and MS in Sport Management), and then worked at USA Rugby as an intern. I had played rugby for a while in India, and obviously had an interest in it, but I got my first taste of introduction to a large-scale event this side of the planet through USA Rugby.
When I graduated from UMass, I fell into a job with Rugby United New York, which is one of our teams. From there, I moved on to where I am now, Major League Rugby; I work in operations and marketing.
I primarily handle competition operations, which include player contracts because all the players are centrally contracted to us rather than to each individual team. I also take care of the high-level points of the schedule—the format we play, the number of games, and playoffs. Finally, the referees fall under our ambit, like it or not. Aside from operations, I help with marketing at a strategic level, primarily with research and data collection.
What is it like to manage marathons in India?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Running in India at the moment is roughly where it was in the U.S. in the 70s. But the organization I worked for, I’d say, was ahead of its time. We organized ultramarathons and trail marathons in the middle of nowhere, which is incredibly challenging. You don’t have the kind access to the routes that you would ideally like and so a lot of the patrolling happens on bicycles.
You could also encounter problems such as a bullock cart blocking the path. I know it sounds stereotypically Indian, but that’s genuinely an issue we faced. It made for solid event management experience, because the things you have to think about are things that you don’t think about. Aside from this, I really enjoyed the relationships I built with the individuals that I worked with. Setting up aid stations at 2 a.m. in the middle of nowhere…that’s the kind of thing that you never forget.
Where does Major League Rugby fit in the world, as far as rugby goes?
Within the U.S., we’re the only professional rugby league. We serve as an aspirational pathway for young athletes in the country. There is a thriving club game that is all amateur, and then, of course, there’s the U.S. national team. So there was this layer in between that was missing and we’re filling that in. More importantly, we truly believe that rugby can be a premier sports entertainment product. We think it’s got all the facets of traditional American sports, and it’s got a great international flavor. I think that bodes well for it from an attendance point of view, as well as towards being positioned as a broadcast product.
Internationally, the U.S. is seen as a golden goose for the rugby community and a place where rugby should succeed just because of the existing fanbase for contact sports. I think the world wants Major League Rugby to succeed, and we’re just happy to be a part of it all and work with the various stakeholders to grow this game and raise its profile domestically.
Yeah, that’s great. As I told you before, I’m a big fan personally of the Legion team down here. It’s so great to see that there are professional leagues across Europe and the South Pacific. Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the United States as far as youth athletics go, and there’s just so much opportunity for us. I’m really happy as a fan that you guys are filling that gap.
Glad to hear it, and it’s people like you that’ll help us grow it, so thank you for your support.
Obviously there are no games going on right now. Can you talk a little bit about how COVID has impacted the season, you, and the team?
We were five weeks into season three, which had started off fantastically—as you know, your San Diego Legion was 5-0 and cruising towards the playoffs. But unfortunately, probably a day after the NBA canceled its season—I believe it was March 12—we suspended the season for 30 days, initially.
We scrambled hard behind the scenes to see how we could play out and potentially finish the season. However, we have a lot of international players, and we knew that this was a growing pandemic that was going to affect countries all over the world. Safety was our primary concern and so we made the decision a week later to cancel the season altogether.
Of course, some good came of it. One, we helped the players get back to their countries and be with their families as soon as possible. Two, we credit the owners who made the decision to pay out the contracts of the players in full. And three, it actually gave us a good amount of runway before season four—something we didn’t have for seasons one, two, and three—to prepare and refresh our thinking about everything to make sure that we’re on the right track and we can amplify our message to the right audiences.
Now, you were pretty busy right after you decided to officially shut down the season. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did to try to engage fans and players?
Sure. The first part on the back end of things was making sure that our players were paid out and that from a legal perspective, everything was in the clear. All that took a significant amount of effort. Those are the nitty-gritties that I’m guessing folks who are watching this go through on a daily basis, right? So that’s what kept us busy initially.
Parallelly, we were the first sports league to announce a virtual competition—we moved from playing rugby on the field to playing Rugby 20, which is a video game. For this, we had players from each team representing their home markets and teams and had a little competition over the next three weeks. That was a fantastic experience for all involved and, of course, for the fans.
Can you give us some of the nitty-gritties and how you pulled something off like that so quickly? What do you need to be able to do something like that?
Sure, so the first thing I remember was a meeting we had in which we had gathered a great team of about eight people who got together on that first phone call to discuss the various aspects. We didn’t know if we could pull it off, but we decided to make the announcement anyway. I think that this decision was a conscious one on our part because it served as an impetus for us to really chase after it and make sure that we did it. It was key to make that quick announcement and show that we’re nimble.
Then came the nitty-gritty. First was the format—how many games do we want to play? How long do we want this to go on? At that point, we weren’t sure how long the pandemic would last or whether we’d be able to get back into games. We thought a three- or four-week competition would be appropriate. It was a good amount of time to keep fans engaged without dragging on too long.
The second part was moving to a completely online product. To do that, we changed our logo a little bit to make it more video game–like. Full credit goes to the marketing staff of each of our teams who did a great job of pivoting from traditional sports to eSports.
What technology did you use to facilitate it?
We had some great people on our team who had experience with online gaming competitions. They put together a technical sheet for each of the teams to buy the equipment. Then we thought, ‘Okay, what if they don’t buy a camera that matches the others?’ So we took it upon ourselves to buy all the equipment for the teams, which involved late runs to Walmart in each of those markets and sometimes to more obscure stores as well.
We streamed on Twitch, which is a well-known eSports streaming platform. But even that was new for us—we had never done anything on Twitch. Some of our players had streamed on Twitch, but figuring out the back end was a challenge. For the Fan (FTF), a production company in New England, helped us think through and produce the games.
Who ended up winning?
The Austin Gilgronis ended up taking out the title, which was good for Austin; they’ve had a challenging time. They went winless in season two, they had just gotten their first win in season three, and then they took the title online. We weren’t displeased about that—it was great.
Nice shot of confidence for them. That sounds like that was a good, fun event. Was there a lot of fan engagement?
Absolutely. One part of this was technical—the back end, format, schedule, etc. The other thing that was different about this was the speed at which we needed to communicate with teams in order to get the message out to fans in all markets. Generally, we try and get all the information together and then distribute it to the teams. In this case, we were feeding them with information as we got it, to make sure that they could prepare as much as possible—that was key.
But what really amplified things was reaching out to other organizations and individuals that would help us. For instance, we contacted Twitch and asked to be featured on their front page. Then, we contacted high-profile owners in our league—Patrick Chung and Nate Ebner—who are part owners of the New England Free Jacks. We got them to play games against some of our players, so there was some nice football and rugby banter.
With the combination of influencers to amplify the message, the teams doing an amazing job with the existing audience, and a whole new audience on Twitch, things worked well for us and resulted in close to 1.2 million impressions, which was fantastic for a league our size.
Wow, that’s interesting. Any sense of how many of those were new Twitch users?
Oh, I’d say a majority. I don’t have an exact percentage for you, but I’d say over 90%.
Talk about growing the game that way. Tell us a little bit more about how you’re using virtual for other aspects of your business too.
Sure. The other event we had in the works was the MLR collegiate draft—our first-ever collegiate draft. When we conceptualized this in August 2019, we didn’t know whether it would be a full-fledged combine or if we’d just have the top draft picks, but we knew we wanted to do something in person. Once COVID hit, of course, we had to make other plans.
Was this the first-ever draft for collegiate rugby in the United States?
Well, in the United States, yes. But interestingly enough, we found that this was the first-ever draft the world over because no one in rugby has ever done this. So it was important to us, continuing what I was talking about earlier, in terms of bridging that gap between collegiate rugby and a professional pathway and providing more opportunities to student athletes.
We had conceptualized this in August and thought it would be physical, but obviously COVID changed that. To maintain our online momentum after the eSports event, we announced that the draft would be virtual as well. The main challenge was collecting information from applicants because a lot of college spring season games got canceled, so there was less opportunity for athletes to showcase themselves and for teams to conduct player analyses. We spent quite a bit of time collecting that information and pushing athletes to put together whatever film they could, because we knew that it would contribute to the broadcast show, and add to each team’s ability to analyze players.
I’d be lying if I said we had a concrete idea of what we were going to do on the virtual draft day until maybe a month before it, when we took the final call and said, ‘Okay, nothing physical is possible, it’s going to be a draft show.’ Then we had to think about how to make it interesting for fans, knowing that this was our first draft and it wasn’t going to be like a traditional sports property which had years of built up hype.
We took the decision to make it a draft show and not feature the actual draft. On a Saturday morning, we gathered on Zoom and had a bit of fun with it. There were some things on the screen that made it seem like a traditional draft—we had a draft board, the video from Zoom, and our teams on there, obviously all remotely. The format was five minutes per pick. Ours was a pretty short draft, with two rounds. I was most impressed by how prepared the teams were. Some of the teams had gone through all 400 of our applicants just to make sure they were not missing any diamonds in the rough.
In the lead up to the draft, we did a lot of work. I had a great team who put together bios for the most likely draft picks. We had conversations with teams and said, ‘Hey, who are you thinking about picking? We want to make sure that they’re showcased well.’ Come draft day, of the 24 picks, we had bios, photographs, and footage ready to go for about 20 of them. There were four surprises that threw us off, but we had a window of about three or four hours between the actual draft and the draft broadcast. We did our research in the meantime.
FTF recorded the show and aired it at 7 p.m. that evening, and we got great feedback. The important thing for us was to make sure that the draftees were front and center. I think we managed to do that alongside being able to tell the story of the league, tell our story through COVID, and give our fans a sense of what to expect in the off-season and in season four. Our 90-minute show was packed tight and we saw some good engagement across the board.
That’s outstanding. How have you thought about keeping the media and your sponsors engaged with no events going on?
That’s a great question. With virtual, that was actually one of the key elements to figure out the technical side. We managed to give them similar exposure to what they’d get on a rugby pitch. For instance, we had a scrolling sponsor banner at the bottom of each game, and we allowed both team and league sponsors to be featured on each of the broadcasts.
I think part of what keeps sponsors and the media happy during this time is showing that you’re willing to go out of your way and put in the effort, which I think we truly did. We recognized that no one got the value that they wanted out of the season, and so we did our best with MLR Virtual.
Additionally, during the draft we had a segment for our ball partner, Rhino while Paladin, our merchandise partner, provided hats for the draftees. There are always things you can do to make your sponsors happy. It was never going to be traditional in this sort of environment, but we managed to involve them as much as possible.
It seems too that your audience was expanding with these new events, and although the exposure was different, maybe it was an opportunity for them to get their message out to more people.
Yeah, absolutely. There is opportunity in adversity. We may have even gotten to an eSports competition in three to five years anyway, because eSports is growing like crazy, as you know. But this forced us to try something ahead of time and learn from it.
For instance, we learnt that Rugby 20 doesn’t feature MLR on it! If you study the growth of soccer’s popularity in the U.S., you find that a lot of it is attributed to people playing the video game FIFA. Similarly, we see Rugby 20 or another rugby video game as an opportunity through which we can grow the sport. Although we were forced to, through our endeavors in virtual with an eSports audience and the draft with a collegiate audience, we managed to reach out to some new folks.
Have you thought much about how you will approach the media moving forward? Now in this new world, there’ll be physical events, but virtual seems like it’s working for you or you’ve found ways to do it. Have you thought about how to maybe help include the media and bring them in virtually?
Yeah, virtual events are here to stay, pandemic or not. But I think rugby is still an in-person sport, so initially I’d say that we all want to get back to playing and having in-person events and exposure through them. But in the meanwhile, I think we want to do what’s best for our partners, both media and otherwise.
One thing that we’re doing is rethinking our broadcast product and looking at how we can enhance what we’re doing from a TV perspective. As for OTT, do we go with existing providers? Do we create our own solutions? Those are things that we’re talking about.
In terms of reaching out to the media, we’ve discussed a regular state of the league event for folks to reach out to us and the commissioner specifically. We’ve also been putting more energy into our podcast because we see that as a vehicle that we can grow fairly easily. There are definitely things that we’re thinking about both for the traditional forms of media as well as newer formats that are growing.
Are there any organizations or technology groups that you’re watching closely to know what they’re doing and how they’re solving problems?
For sure. With the draft, for instance, we had the benefit of the NFL draft, the WNBA draft, and the Major League Lacrosse draft going before us; there was a wide range there. I pay close attention to the NBA—it’s exemplary. They were arguably the sporting organization that first signaled the pandemic to the world with the closure of their season. We definitely look at them because they’ve done a great job with their restart as well.
We’re also studying at properties closer to our size, including Premier League Lacrosse, Major League Lacrosse, and World Team Tennis, which have all either managed to or will hold their events in some way, shape, or form. We’re going to look at and learn from them, the technologies they use, and their best practices, to make sure that we can pull off a successful season.
That’s great to hear. Any particular technology standing out for you to help you do what you’re trying to do?
Well, there’s Zoom and other webinar facilities that we’re constantly looking at. Zoom has been great for most of our work on the back end.
From a broadcast standpoint, that’s one area we’re looking at evolving technology. Traditionally, you have a truck outside the stadium and your commentators in the stadium broadcasting from there and beaming it via satellite. We’re looking at a remote production where we might not necessarily have the commentators in the stadium. They could be calling the game from a studio and we would cut back and forth. It’s quite amazing where the technology has reached. We’ve actually used remote production for a few of our games over the last two seasons and it’s growing.
Initially, some of the major broadcasters wouldn’t accept that kind of signal because there are questions or concerns about quality and reliability, but that’s changing. COVID has accelerated changes in the broadcast landscape as much as in any other industry. Those are things that we’re keeping a close tab on and we’re going through the process right now of identifying people who can help us.
That’s great to hear. It’s really interesting to see how innovative people are being. If you think of even a sport like golf, where the sponsors’ tent is a big part of the day, how do you recreate that in a scenario where you can’t have people together? LENND is a technology that can help with that. But it’s really cool to see how people can come up with solutions to these challenges.
Absolutely, yeah. For instance, for the MLR draft, we had multiple teams do virtual draft watch parties. It was quite fun. I know the Free Jacks had a great one. Some of them were actually able to do watch parties in person but otherwise virtual draft parties became a thing within Major League Rugby.
Very cool. Well, is there anything else that you want to share with our event audience?
I think the most interesting part of my job is taking a brand like Major League Rugby and figuring out our values and success metrics and then being able to translate that to the teams. We’re going through that exercise right now to figure out who we are, who our fans are, and which fans we want to reach out to.
We want to have some sort of uniformity and minimum standard across our teams, in all facets of their business, whether it’s the online presence, game day operations, broadcast product, etc. Figuring out what that looks like is a challenge in itself; it’s really interesting. But then how do we make it work for each of our markets? Because the audiences vary, and what fans expect online and in person is very different.
Folks in Texas love their fireworks, and our Texas teams do a great job of including them in the game day package. But that’s not necessarily what New Yorkers, for instance, look for. There’s a negotiation between what we want as the major league product, the parts we want to keep similar across teams, and the parts we want team to have complete freedom with. That’s the most interesting aspect of my job both from an operations and marketing standpoint. I’m very lucky to be able to do it.
I could see that would be really challenging because you’ve got a brand continuity that you have to keep across all of the entities, yet you definitely want to have a local feel for the teams.
That’ll keep you busy for sure.
Absolutely. Honestly, sometimes we’re at odds with teams, but with good reason. Each team knows what’s going on in their local market and our responsibility is making sure that the local market can be amplified nationally. It keeps things interesting and challenging.
Great. Well, thank you so much for spending time with us today. This was really interesting. I really, really appreciate it. Overall, it’s been great to get a backstage look at everything.
Thanks, Ray. Thanks a lot for having me. I hope this was useful for you and everyone watching or reading.
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