Significant Investment in the Fastest Growing Team Sport Yielding Results for Non-Endemic Sponsor


The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company (Penn Mutual) is the title sponsor of the Collegiate Rugby Championship (for a 5th straight year). Over the last half decade, the Philadelphia based insurer has invested heavily - far beyond what is commonly done at the sponsor level - into growing the sport. Annual collegiate tournament aside, the company has sparked a local grassroots youth movement, picked up sponsorship of the National Small College Rugby Organization (NSCRO), produced a pair of Telly Award winning documentaries on the sport and established a discount program with Rhino Rugby that helps to outfit 200+ collegiate teams. Penn Mutual has worked to become synonymous with rugby believing the sport serves as an effective platform to raise brand awareness and to assist in the recruitment of both advisers and clients.

Howie Long-Short: When Penn Mutual signed on as the title sponsor of the Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC), the company wasn’t in the market for a sports marketing partnership - in fact, in its 167-year history it had never invested in athletics - but as Chairman and CEO Eileen C. McDonnell explained “the opportunity to increase brand awareness amongst millennials, to tap into some next generation talent for the organization (the company hadn’t recruited on campus in decades) and ultimately to obtain clients” with a local event (corporate headquarters are in Philadelphia) was intriguing; as was the chance to align with a property that remained “near the ground floor" (so there would be plenty of upside), that wasn’t bound by NCAA restrictions (rugby isn’t sanctioned by the organization, so athletes can be used in promotion). McDonnell’s decision, at least timing wise, couldn’t have been better. Within weeks of Penn Mutual signing on as the tournament’s title sponsor it was announced that rugby would be reintroduced - after a 90-year hiatus - as an Olympic sport.

If brand awareness was Penn Mutual’s main objective, efforts to achieve it through the sport have been an undeniable success. Since 2014, the life insurance company has received more than 1 billion impressions within rugby based content across television, digital, out-of-home media and social media platforms.

McDonnell believes those who play the game have the ideal makeup to excel at the company which explains why she’s looking to the pitch for job candidates. Collegiate rugby teams rarely offer athletic scholarships, “so many of those competing go to school full-time, play a sport and manage to hold down a job to help pay for college” - an indication that they’re a disciplined, hardworking, dedicated group. It’s unclear how lettermen perform in the workplace relative to those who didn’t play, but it seems as if Penn Mutual’s investment in rugby is paying off on the recruiting front; 18% of all new advisers since ’16 have an affiliation with the sport.

The rugby viewing audience and the athletes that play the game in college are also “the right clients” for Penn Mutual’s products. McDonnell noted that “those in the rugby community tend to be highly educated professionals - doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs - with household earnings in excess of $150,000/year.”

Penn Mutual’s investment in rugby has yielded results (which explains why the company is close to signing a 5-year extension with the CRC). In ’15 the life insurance giant emerged on the Fortune 1,000 list for the first time (at #980). The company now sits at #723, +38 spots YoY. While it’s difficult to attribute all the recent success to their involvement with the sport, Penn Mutual has not done any other national branding campaigns since it signed on with the Collegiate Rugby Championship tournament in 2014.

Fan Marino: Since ’10, rugby has been the fastest growing team sport in the country across the youth, high school and collegiate levels (lacrosse is 2nd). McDonnell attributes the increased participation to the “bad press” that football has received. Parents concerned about head injuries are driving their children to less violent sports.

The Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships is an invitational tournament, with two qualifiers, consisting of 54 men's and women's teams (800+ student athletes) that will determine 3 collegiate national champions - men's, women's and NSCRO. The event will be held this weekend (May 31 – June 2) at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia. ESPN networks will carry 7 hours of live broadcast coverage over the weekend, while ESPN+ will live-stream the in stadium matches on Saturday from 8a-630p and Sunday from 10a-5p.

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