Determination, Culture, Innovation, Drive College Rugby Program
December 12, 2019
Located in northeastern Nebraska, Wayne State College has become largely the epicenter of rugby in the state. With an enrollment of 3,500 students located in a small town, Wayne State has come to epitomize small college rugby. Thanks to the hard work and out of the box thinking of the club founder Darrin Barner, the Wayne State women’s rugby program has had success on the pitch and in the community.
Building From the Ground Up
Barner founded both the program in 2002, years after he played football at the school and served as the Intramural Coordinator. Like most schools, rugby was not going to be a varsity sport and he would have to operate with the athletes and resources of the club model.
“I just knew in the back of my mind there were enough pretty darn good non-varsity athletes at WSC, and after some strong thought decided to start up a team,” Barner said.
Nobody from the early days had ever picked up a rugby ball prior to playing at the school. Even today, 99 percent of the rugby team had never played before. Like most schools, they try and recruit new students to come play. Wayne State rugby has worked with the school to make an impact on new freshman immediately.
“On the first day of school we have a really nice promotion outside the cafeteria telling people about rugby, that there is no experience required. We hold a practice that same day to welcome freshman to campus and expose them to rugby,” Barner said.
Out of the Box Thinking
Wayne is a small town, but the community has rallied around the program thanks to clever marketing promotions. Barner has been able to have fun giveaways and promotions that drive community engagement. One of the biggest promotions, saw a military jet fly over the game at halftime.
“We had 1,000 people at the game and 975 of them did not come for the rugby game, they came for the half time fly over, but after the game we passed out comment cards and many people said they wanted bleachers to sit in and wanted a public announcer explain the rules as the game went along. We did that the next year and then more and more town folks came to the games,” Barner added.
Other promotions have included fireworks, free airline tickets, helicopter landings and more. They have even partnered with a local radio station for people to win free cash and a wedding ring.
“Then over the years the word of mouth gets around town, and many people always have circled on their calendar to attend a game during the year. This year we had a Canadian team come down for a Thursday night game and pulled in 1,000 people to our game,” Barner stated.
Building a strong team culture has been a foundation for success at Wayne State. The program commits to community service projects around the town, so that they can better promote and expand the game and bring everyone together.