Murdoch's Money Creating A U.s. Toehold For Rugby One Of The Teams In His League, The Glen Mills Bulls, Will Play For A North American Title Tomorrow.

Posted: September 18, 1998

Pat McShea, a member of the Glen Mills Bulls rugby team, was catching his breath at practice early yesterday morning when he was asked to reflect on the business strategies of Rupert Murdoch.

``Who?'' responded McShea. ``I've never heard of the dude.''

Shea, 26, with a shaved head and goatee, is a 250-pound, 6-foot-2 counselor at the Glen Mills School. Murdoch, 67, is one of the world's most influential business tycoons.

What they have in common is the Glen Mills Bulls rugby team, in the nascent Super League America, a Murdoch creation.

The Australian-born billionaire media magnate is betting that, by establishing rugby leagues in this country and elsewhere in the world, he can win ever larger viewing audiences in his home country, and perhaps create new markets for the arcane sport.

The idea is that Super League America and its games eventually could become software, or programming, for Murdoch's vast cable and satellite television network.

Neither Pat McShea nor most of his teammates had played rugby before last year, but that didn't keep them from becoming the league's top team this year and thus national champions.

Tomorrow, they will play for the North American Challenge Cup against the Canadian Thunderbirds, Canada's national champions. The game, at the Glen Mills School, is to start at 6:30 p.m.

It will not be televised.

* Murdoch's point man for establishing rugby in this country is David Niu, a former professional rugby player from Sydney, Australia, and a counselor at the Glen Mills School.

Niu recruited fellow teachers and counselors, most of whom had been college athletes, for the 24-member Bulls team.

``Super League America was founded by the News Corporation,'' Niu explained, referring to Murdoch's company. ``They have been trying to develop the game globally, in part to provide programming for television.

``Cable television is a big thing in Australia, and [Murdoch] was looking for opportunities to develop programming, and rugby is one way to do it.''

Why rugby?

A minor (or nonexistent) sport in this country, rugby is the equivalent of baseball in Australia. ``It is the national sport,'' Niu said. ``It is part of the culture.''

In the United States, he suggested, the emphasis on speed, agility and aggressiveness could make it a potent spectator sport.

``I think it will appeal to people in this country because it is so close to football,'' Niu said. ``It has the contact. It has a lot of action, and it has a lot of scoring.''

In Australia, Niu said, pro rugby players make $150,000 to $1 million a year. Those salaries have been inflated primarily by Murdoch's recent entry into the sport there.

To the uninitiated, rugby is a bit like American football on amphetamines. A score is made by advancing an oblong ball across the opposition's goal line, but players wear no helmets or pads, and play is continuous.

A forerunner of American football, rugby originated in England in the 19th century - the Rugby Football Union was formed in 1871 - and the first organized game in the United States was played in 1874, by Harvard College and McGill University.

The sport developed enough of a following in this country that in 1924, the last time rugby enjoyed Olympic status, the United States won the gold medal. Since then, interest has fallen to the point that rugby is primarily a club sport with about 60,000 participants nationwide.

Not so elsewhere in the world. Though not on a par with, say, soccer, it commands a great following worldwide, particularly in England and other United Kingdom countries. The 1995 quadrennial Rugby World Cup was attended live or watched on TV by 2.5 billion people, which made the event the third-largest watched sporting event ever, according to the International Rugby Football Board.

Among the most rabid fans are those in Australia, which is where Murdoch's interest in the game started. In 1994, Murdoch saw the sport as the key to solidifying the position of his new Foxtel Cable Network there.

As he explained to his stockholders, Murdoch believed that sports ``absolutely overpowers'' movies or any other event as a draw for subscribers to cable and satellite television. Hence his $350 million purchase last year of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his recent $1 billion agreement to buy the Manchester United soccer team.

According to Barry Frank, senior vice president with the sports promotion firm International Management Group, sports provides the one opportunity for a network to stand out in the marketplace.

``If you are a movie network, you're going to have the same movies everybody else has,'' he said. ``But with sports you can be unique. And you can control an audience. If you are the only place to get Major League Baseball, for instance, you are going to control a huge audience.''

(Comcast-Spectacor chairman Ed Snider has pursued a similar strategy in Philadelphia, with the creation of the Comcast SportsNet, which provides coverage of the Flyers and 76ers.)

The strength of controlling sports coverage, Frank said, is that each game ``is a brand-new product, never seen before.

``The outcome is unknown. For those people who are interested in a sport or excited by a sport, cable television then becomes the only place they can see it,'' he said, guaranteeing an audience.

In Australia, the audience Murdoch wanted followed rugby. The problem was that the existing organization, the Australian Rugby League, already had a television deal with a rival network. Undaunted, Murdoch set out to start his own league.

He spent $60 million to hire more than 200 of the Australian Rugby League's top players. In the process, he more than doubled the average salary for rugby players in Australia.

Murdoch's assault on the status quo did not necessarily have the desired results. Backlash against his heavy-handed style has translated into poor TV ratings and lowered attendance at league games.

That has not stopped him from launching rugby leagues around the globe. Super League America is part of that effort.

``My guess is that putting together a rugby league in this country costs very little money,'' Frank said. ``And the possible returns could be terrific on a worldwide basis.''

* Now in its second year, Super League America has a half-dozen teams, all on the East Coast. These are amateur clubs; players receive uniforms and equipment, but no pay.

James Nestor, a league spokesman and a player on the Glen Mills Bulls, said the league hopes to expand, perhaps to the West Coast and New England.

The current teams - which include the Philadelphia Bulldogs and the Penn Raiders - played an 11-game schedule and averaged about 1,000 to 1,500 spectators a game, Nestor said.

Typical of the Glen Mills recruits is Bill Hansbury, 37, a former resident of Northeast Philadelphia. Hansbury, a tight end at Frankford High and West Chester University, knew of rugby but had never played it until Niu persuaded him to give it a try.

Now he's hooked.

``I enjoy it immensely,'' he said yesterday, taking a break from the team's dawn practice. ``It is just like football, which I missed. I discovered I missed the collisions.''

Though Hansbury knew who Rupert Murdoch was, he only smiled when asked about the connection between the mogul and his current love for a full-contact sport he barely knew of two years ago.

``It is just a great sport,'' Hansbury said. ``How else are you going to explain how you can get 24 guys - most who have been working until midnight - out here on the practice field at 6:30 in the morning?''

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