The Runner Sports

Nine US Clubs Form Major League Rugby

Nine US clubs are stepping forward in an attempt to provide a stable professional rugby competition in the US. While PRO Rugby USA was the first professional rugby competition, there are several issues that threaten to derail its future. From allegations of mismanagement to arguments and misunderstandings, there are some that claim PRO is dead while others have enthusiastic confidence in its future. Regardless, a new competition is coming.

Major League Rugby (MLR) is on the horizon. The US is plenty big enough for multiple rugby competitions and as the NFL had the AFL, the NHL the WHL, and the NBA the NBL, competition often builds strong singular leagues. Mergers or not, if the Aviva Premiership and Pro 12 can coexist in the United Kingdom then PRO Rugby and MLR can do the same in a nation three times that size.

I had the opportunity to speak with one of the nine clubs’ Director of Marketing. Diana Anderson of the Glendale Raptors was kind enough to take time away from her busy schedule to elaborate on the future of the MLR via email.

In our conversation she confirmed the Glendale Raptors along with the Austin Huns, Chicago Lions, Dallas Griffins, Houston Strikers, Kansas City Blues, New Orleans RFC, Rugby Utah, and Seattle Saracens have all signed an Operating Agreement for the MLR.

The nine clubs have two very strong advantages PRO did not: loyal fan support and playing venues. One of PRO’s limitations to this day has been the struggle finding team venues, at one point turning to Twitter requesting venue suggestions; an attempt at fan collaboration many critics panned as amateur. Anderson confirmed all nine clubs will play in their current venues so long as they meet the minimum standard, as is the case with Infinity Park. I have no doubt all nine clubs will meet that minimum standard especially with MLR clubs developing plans to improve their current pitches as is the case in Austin and Dallas, who are both developing club owned fields further separating themselves from the troubles faced by PRO.

As for the players, loyalty to one’s club became a point of contention with PRO and once contracts were terminated many players returned to their club ready to begin their new future as club professionalism begins to take hold. The Aviators in Obetz, Ohio appears to be PRO’s singular success as the development of a first class pitch at The Fortress Stadium is underway and a solid fan base grew out of a rugby savvy region. But where will PRO get their players as a rift has clearly grown between many of their former players.

Rumors continue to emerge regarding Doug Schoninger’s acquisition of the Southern Kings from South Africa. Could he funnel South African talent into PRO and field teams that way? I have it on good authority that no matter the plan it is likely PRO will have a second season in some form in 2017. How will this effect MLR? Likely not at all.

I asked Diana Anderson when the timetable for MLR’s first game was and her answer was as expected, “…tentatively launching in 2018 but no date has been set yet.” With the recent announcement of the MLR it’s expected that clubs have yet to finalize a schedule; the official announcement hasn’t even been made public but I just had to ask.

The question of expansion is always on the curious fan’s mind and I just couldn’t help myself; “We will actively seek expansion once the MLR season has begun” she stated. So in 2018 we can start speculating on the addition of clubs like San Francisco Golden Gate (SFGG) Rhinos, Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC), and Old Blue Rugby; all three have solid fan support, sponsors, and first-class stadiums. But I guess I should wait for these original nine to play their first game before I get too excited.

As for game broadcasts, currently there are no broadcast deal but Anderson did state, “negotiating a broadcast deal is in the plan.” I would anticipate, at a minimum, matches to be broadcast via Infinity Park, the Huns platform, and possibly the new Seattle Saracens YouTube channel. Opportunity is certainly there for broadcast deals and for clubs to reach out to local broadcasters or YouTubers. If I were to speculate on broadcast partners I would lean toward former PRO partner One World Sports or the Huns’ current partner Spectrum Sports (formerly Time Warner).

According to Anderson they “are in the beginning stages of planning for the official launch of the MLR” and stated the plan for official announcement is “late summer 2017,” likely released with the launch of their new MLR website and social media channels. I would anticipate release via Twitter, Facebook, and the other major social media players.

So the big question many have is sanctioning by USA Rugby as PRO currently maintains exclusive rights. When asked Anderson’s answer was honest and to the point; “We are hopeful that USAR will sanction MLR and will move forward if we are unable to secure sanctioning.”

There you have it. I have it on good authority that PRO intends to continue on in some form or fashion and one way or another MLR will tentatively launch in 2018. Our country is big enough for two competitions and maybe we’ll be the better for it. All I know is I’ve been advocating for club evolution into professionalism and I’m thrilled at the prospect of a professional competition consisting purely of US Elite Clubs.

My final question for Diana Anderson was what will be the measurement of success for MLR and while sponsorship and broadcast deals were part of her answer –those are required measurements in order to attain the true mark of success– it was in the last part of her answer that I think truly separates Major League Rugby from anything else, “continuing to announce new teams in the MLR as well as all teams actively involved in expanding the youth programs creating a pathway.” Development and growth, the true marks of success.

Jason Graves
Follow me

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
Follow me