The Runner Sports

Reading Between The Lines: Major League Rugby Press Release

As a leader in US club rugby coverage, The Runner Sports brings you complete coverage of Major League Rugby’s launch announcement with straightforward analysis. In italics are the excerpts from MLR’s official press release announcing their spring 2018 launch, the rest is my analysis as I read between the lines.

Major League Rugby to launch in Spring 2018

First, let’s start with the title alone. The implication of MLR kicking off in spring of next year indicates the death of Professional Rugby Organization (PRO) has not been overexaggerated. I have yet to see a response from the usually combative social media presence of PRO owner Doug Schroninger, which should be interesting when/if he finally does. As of today, PRO still has exclusive rights to professional rugby in the US and still has a chance to do something to maintain it yet nothing seems possible at this point; Schroninger’s silence is telling.

Salt Lake City UT: Beginning in 2018, Major League Rugby (MLR) will launch as a new professional rugby competition in North America. MLR will be the premier rugby competition in the United States. By drawing on the best domestic talent MLR will create an intense, fast paced competition and a top-tier media product. MLR will introduce rugby to the American sports mainstream, provide a focal point for millions of existing fans and bring even more new supporters to the game. MLR will launch with members in: Glendale, CO; Kansas City, MO; Dallas, TX; Houston, TX; Austin, TX; New Orleans, LA; Seattle, WA; Minneapolis, MN; and Salt Lake City, UT. MLR will announce a final team and venue list, player contract information, and 2018 schedule, in the coming months. Beyond 2018, MLR will expand to more cities with an emphasis on finding the right partners, markets and venues.

Absent from the list of cities is Chicago, the Lions originally identified as one of the original nine clubs; Minneapolis is the newcomer to the list. Is it a misprint, should Chicago have been listed and Minneapolis kept as the team to be named later? Maybe something fell through with the Lions’ ability to uphold any one of the MLR’s requirements: venue, academy system, etc.

Beyond 2018, what other communities are primed to have a future MLR club? Vancouver and Toronto would open the Canadian market and accomplish something PRO never could, truly unifying North American club rugby. Vancouver would give Seattle a regional rival and Toronto would further the development of rugby in the US northeast giving rugby hotbeds of Boston, New York, and Columbus a cost effective divisional alignment.

Speaking of Columbus, there is currently a wonderful facility being constructed in the southern Columbus suburb of Obetz. Yes, the planned future home of the Ohio Aviators. Does this mean MLR may be agreeable to bringing in former PRO clubs such as the Aviators? The San Diego Breakers and Sacramento Express could quickly establish viable clubs in their rugby rich communities. If not a former PRO club, my vote for the first California-based team in the MLR will be the highly successful San Francisco Golden Gate Rhinos.

There are several venues and communities capable of supporting club rugby as MLR wants to present it; rugby towns like Tucson and Pittsburgh will show off their venues in the club rugby regionals, southern Florida has a visionary in Gavin McLeavy developing an academy and community in the Okapi Wanderers a mere stone’s throw away from Lockhart Stadium where the Eagles played Chile in 2016. Portland, Raleigh, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, Memphis, the list goes on. The MLR could even play annual matches in Anchorage at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds and it would be a success. Depending on the long-term vision, rugby could literally dominate the North American sporting landscape. Ok, slow down you say…I know but it’s true.

Developing the game of rugby is at the core of the MLR model. MLR will create local destinations where rugby fans and families can come together to celebrate the highest levels of the American game. MLR stadia will be gathering places for rugby fans and local communities to gather around the game. By connecting the national to the local, MLR will invite America to join the unique, vibrant rugby family and discover its core values: integrity, passion, solidarity, discipline and respect.

Obviously, the MLR recognizes the importance of the club; club focus is vital, something PRO failed to cultivate and by the initial clubs involved it’s clear MLR gets it. Even Houston and Minneapolis, who are not tied to established clubs, are in passionate rugby communities with long established clubs. It’s likely theses two MLR clubs will eventually tie into one or more of the current amateur clubs in order to build their academy systems.

MLR will reinvigorate the American rugby development pathway. By creating outreach programs to bring new players to the game and high-performance pathways to keep the best athletes in the sport, MLR will create the competitive environment to push the American game to the next level.

Development. That will be the key to MLR’s success because it feeds back into the game, the community, and grows the game with the promise of a future in the game aka a pay day to play. Kids dream of playing in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL not just because they love the sport, it’s because they can get paid playing the sport they love. I know, I was one of them. A pathway is important in order to reach those players looking for another sport; rugby players and fans are not the true target of development in the US, it’s people who don’t even know they want to be rugby fans and players yet.

Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States and one of the most popular sports in the world, as evidenced by the strong reception it received at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Rugby’s rising domestic growth and wide-reaching global fan base combine to create a unique environment for a professional league to succeed in the American market. While hundreds of local clubs have helped the sport to take hold in the U.S. during the past decade, Major League Rugby is poised to unite these fans under a common banner as rugby enters the American sports mainstream.

The biggest question I have here is how to bring rugby to the mainstream? Streaming matches will not reach a mass audience. Will the MLR make a deal with one of the major networks? CBS Sports, NBC Sports, ESPN are airing rugby, any one could easily step up to the table. Could the MLR go the route of MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL by creating their own network? That last possibility is unlikely unless commissioner Dean Howes uses his Major League Soccer connections and establish a joint network venture. Either way, the MLR needs something other than the over the air media PRO relied on. Even if they start local like the Huns have with Spectrum Sports they need a mainstream media broadcast.

About MLR: MLR is an initiative driven by existing USA Rugby-member teams, in partnership with private investors, who believe that American rugby can thrive at the highest levels: as a commercial enterprise; as an influential player on the international scene; and as a participation sport at the youth and senior level.

In order to accomplish the above mission statement will require clear objectives and goals to meet their combined vision. So far, MLR’s slow roll has been effective, unlike PRO, the drip drip drip of information has led to a flood of discussion, speculation, and market research and analysis. Brilliant. The MLR is already ahead of the power curve in terms of publicity, something else PRO failed at miserably. I had hope for PRO and I was thrilled at its prospects but I have faith in the MLR and I’ll take faith over hope any day.

 

-By Jason Graves

  • Cr4yol4

    Golden Gate was asked to join and said no, because of the revenue sharing. A percentage of gate revenue given to the league is a requirement for joining. SFGG relies on that to fund their program and doesn’t want to give any up.

  • Grant A Cole

    PSST. You keep saying club rugby when talking about the MLR.

    MLR is not club rugby. Full Stop.

    • Jason Graves

      The MLR refers to them as clubs…with all due respect, that’s good enough for me.

      • Grant A Cole

        Check.

        Go back and read that presser that you analyzed again. Exactly one (1) sentence mentions “clubs” and then only to differentiate the MLR from amateur club rugby (although you took that to mean something else).

        Bottom line? The MLR will be a professional team competition, not an amateur club competition. There’s the rub.

        • Jason Graves

          I asked the MLR themselves, no official term yet but there is nothing that demands club be an amateur term. The RFU refer to professional teams as clubs so long as they meet 6 criteria:
          Retaining & Developing Players
          Recruiting New Players
          Recruiting & Retaining High Quality Coaches, Volunteers & Referees
          Effective & Efficient Facilities
          Effective & Efficient Management and Governance
          Integration with the Local Community

          We’re arguing semantics…look up the Aviva Premiership, they are professional clubs.