The Runner Sports

Major League Rugby Will Succeed Where Others Failed

Professional rugby will succeed in our country and Major League Rugby (MLR) is doing it right. Despite my efforts to show that rugby in the United States is not only alive and well but thriving, the sport remains mired with that horrid label of niche sport. While The Runner Sports (TRS) may not have the readership of ESPN of Sports Illustrated I am very proud to say that in my two months writing for the company rugby has been 4th and 5th in readership respectively; not too shabby for a niche sport going up against all the major professional and college sports TRS covers. My point to this is that rugby has a loyal and fierce fan base craving anything written about or spoken regarding rugby. Passionate fans who want to see the sport thrive. I know, I’m one of them. Major League Rugby understands this too and that’s a primary reason they will succeed, they’re fans.

Failure to Communicate

Professional Rugby Organization, or PRO, had an opportunity not only to succeed but to do so quickly; all of the elements were there. A small obscure town outside of Columbus, Ohio even became the model organization, growing seemingly out of nowhere. So what happened? Why is PRO on life support with a hand on the plug? Because they failed to address two very fundamental issues regarding rugby fans and rugby itself; communication and culture.

Information was slow and often times cryptic. There was not enough regular communication between the league and fans. Fans were hungry and you don’t throw scraps to hungry people who want a meal. Information on teams, coaches, players, structure, broadcasting, schedules, all of it…too slow in coming to the public and legitimate questions regarding rumors were met with silence or irritation. As the season went along issues grew and communication continued to be haphazard at best.

Culture

Rugby is nothing if not traditional. Yes, there has been change throughout the years, but clubs are very proud of their culture, their traditions, and their community, and PRO shoved that all aside like a corporate carpetbagger carving teams out of areas where historic clubs with close community ties already existed. Players were eventually made to choose between club and PRO and the club usually won. It was soon evident that PRO was more interested in profit than progress. If I’ve learned one thing as an observer of rugby it’s this: players will play for their club for free until they’re unable to walk and then they’ll just hang around and tell stories until they’re laid to rest. The club is the end all be all of rugby. You can’t just make loyalty like that happen by offering a paycheck.

Why Major League Rugby will succeed where others have failed

The simplest answer is this: Seattle Saracens founded in 1966, Glendale Raptors founded in 2007, Austin Huns 1972, Kansas City Blues 1966, Dallas Griffins 2008, Chicago Lions 1964, and New Orleans Rugby 1973. Rugby Utah and the Houston Strikers will be the exceptions yet they are creating an immediate culture by embracing the old club ethos around them instead of shunning it. Rugby Utah has gone so far as to create its own league, the Men’s Premier Division, in order to develop Utah players and build a Utah rugby culture and to define what it means to be The United State of Rugby as they call themselves. PRO had none of this; the best they could do was the environment developed in Obetz, where PRO surprised the rugby world and carved a team into the heart of Ohio. Obetz proved to be the model, building their own stadium in a rugby hotbed no longer kept a secret from those outside the rugby community.

Foundation in place

Aside from how long the clubs have been around, how embedded they are in their communities, and how they already have a fan base to build upon, these clubs are building for the future. PRO rejected the idea of a minor league. When asked about the concept the answer came as an abrupt but clearly stated and shortsighted “we’re focused on making PRO first.” No explanation of a way forward. No hypotheticals to show they were at least thinking in terms of future growth development. Ask Major League Rugby and they’ll happily point to the requirement for each club to have an academy-like system. Now that’s a brilliant and age-old concept that not only feeds growth of the game and the club, but also the club culture giving each an identity. Just look to Aviva Premiership at the attacking mindset of Wasps or the choking defense of Saracens to name a few; these clubs have academies like all the others preaching their style and their identity, throughout their system they all know who they are. The MLR gets it and there is so much room for growth.

Opportunity abound

San Francisco Golden Gate, Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, Santa Monica, Belmont Shore, Old Blue, New York Athletic, Columbus Rugby, Cincinnati Wolfhounds, Mystic River, Tempe Old Devils, Pittsburgh Harlequins, the list goes on and on, and that doesn’t include the potential for other Obetz-like developments. A professional organization growing out of existing clubs…that’s the way it should have always been built. It makes so much sense it hurts my brain when I think it has taken 22 years since union’s professionalization to see it finally realized in the United States. If the MLR were to include clubs from Canada, all the better for North America as a whole and rugby in general, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of the process.

Setting the stage

They are taking other steps toward success as well, large strides that seem so very simple. The Major Rugby Championship, which includes the Austin Huns, Glendale Raptors, and Rugby Utah is already putting broadcasted club rugby into the consciousness of the fan. Yes, despite Austin’s local television deal, the vast majority of rugby fans need to log into the internet to watch matches, but that’s becoming far more common these days anyway. They are getting rugby fans accustom to the idea of watching clubs play rugby from where ever they are. And when the MLR launches, it will be like putting on those comfy but worn boots and hitting the pitch like any other Saturday. Only it won’t be like any other Saturday, this will be professional rugby, run by a professional organization, with long-term plans in place to succeed.

Professional evolution

The growth of rugby into a professional sport in the U.S. seems only natural it would be cultivated from existing clubs, an organic maturation of organizations wishing to see their sport develop and evolve beyond the social clubs while still including them. It’s not a growth intended to leave behind or eliminate the social aspect of the game; in fact, the MLR is embracing it. When you look at the structure for MLR clubs you see the tiered layers from youth to social, through the various divisions, all the way to elite level professional. It’s a natural progression, it’s the way it should have always been, and the MLR will succeed as a result.

Jason Graves
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Jason Graves

USA Rugby Writer at The Runner Sports
Just a guy with a passion for rugby. Critical thinker and problem solver who likes to write. My sports writing role model was an objective fan, the great Mike Royko!
Jason Graves
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  • Seen from France we hope that this league of rugby has 15 will succeed or Pro Rugby has failed. All our wishes for success.