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The road to success for Major League Rugby

Rugby ball. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
9th July, 2018
31

It’s been a bumper year on the field for all things rugby in the US so far, and the year is only half-way done.

First, the Eagles are 8-0 under their new coaching regime lead by Gary Gold. They kicked off the year comfortably winning the Americas Rugby Championship and then marked their new found confidence and form by commandingly defeating the Russian national team 62-13 in Glendale, Colorado, in the first week of their three-game June Test schedule.

They backed it up by overcoming Scotland 30-29 in Houston a week later, their first-ever win over a tier one opponent (it should be noted it was same Scotland squad that beat Argentina by 30 a week later), before stamping their authority as the top dog in North America over traditional rivals Canada 42-17 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to finish off their summer schedule.

These two series have represented a significant leap forward for the Eagles, but it was probably no more obvious than in their June series. For the first time in Eagles history they fielded an entire squad of professional rugby players – not the requisite handful of recent years but a complete game day 23 with more in reserve.

Major League Rugby is to thank for that.

The lowdown
Major League Rugby emerged from the ashes of PRO Rugby – a situation that is still ongoing, with PRO owner Doug Schoninger recently filing proceedings in Colorado against the national body – and quickly looked to distinguish itself from its predecessor.

First of all, while the league has been set up as a single entity with a head office in Salt Lake City, Utah, under commissioner Dean Howes, former CEO of Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer and a managing partner in the St Louis Blues in the NHL, the clubs are all individually owned and managed but guided by the mandate of the head office.

PRO was very much a dictatorship run at the whim of its owner and often to the detriment of many of its stakeholders.

Second, money: the league has it, and it’s sourced from a number of individuals invested in the game often over the period of decades as opposed to The league’s initial buy-in sat at around $US200,000 but quickly jumped to somewhere over $1 million after it became apparent that the league was likely to gain no less than three broadcast deals.

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Additionally, in order to even be considered for a place at the table. Each owner or ownership group had to prove liquidity for a period of between three and five seasons and the ability to either develop or source facilities with capacities of at least 4000 at first and the ability to grow those facilities if and when the league requires it.

Third, in terms of broadcast deals, the league has enacted a diverse mix of platforms in order to maximise its overall reach. The first big announcement detailed a game-of-the-week arrangement with CBS Sports that involved ten regular season games plus all three of the inaugural finals series games.

The second was the deal to broadcast all of the remaining games via ESPN’s new consolidated sports app ESPN+, and third was the agreement with AT&T Sports and, in the case of San Diego, YurView to broadcast each game regionally in the markets featuring an MLR team.

From all reports the combined ratings across these platforms have been very solid. Internationally MLR has also elected to broadcast their games via their Facebook page.

The inaugural season
The MLR’s inaugural season featured seven teams all based primarily in the western half of the USA, with only New Orleans (colloquially known as NOLA) based technically east of the Mississippi River.

Considering the number of teams, the inaugural season featured ten rounds, with each team playing eight games and having two bye weeks. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair.

The league imposed a strict in-season salary cap of $US350,000 – though this cap covered only the 13 weeks of the actual competitive MLR season; there were actually as many as three distinct caps for the official preseason, which began in mid-January, and the period before it if the teams elected to begin preparations earlier than that – to ensure a level of parity across the competition. Having observed the league in action, this seems to have achieved this goal relatively successfully.

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The primary concern for many in the lead-in was what the standard would be like. PRO could often be spotty but did come good right near the end, and many thought that with more teams the talent might be thin on the ground to deliver at least something similar.

Fortunately these fears were largely unfounded. Very early on those not quite up to the standard were weeded out, but even before that MLR started at a significantly higher standard than that of PRO. It most certainly ended that way in what turned out to be an entertaining championship game in San Diego between the number one and number two ranked teams, the Glendale Raptors (Colorado) and the Seattle Seawolves. For the record, Seattle came back from 19-7 down in the last 20 minutes to be crowned the inaugural MLR Champions 19-23.

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The future
The work towards season two starts now, and it will be bigger and better than its first iteration. The season will be longer, running from January through June with a three-week stand-down period during the Americas Rugby Championship.

There will be more franchises – at least two but probably three and possibly as many as four. New York are officially confirmed. Los Angeles are due to announce their inclusion this week and Ontario have entered formal talks and are looking to join the league next season as well.

The fourth possible side could be in the form of Washington DC, who are currently feeling out their local market in order to determine whether to enter in 2019 or hold off until 2020.

In terms of player remuneration, with a longer season the salary cap is likely to grow. Early indications suggest the season will effectively double, so it’s reasonable to expect the cap will follow suit. It could even potentially crack the $US1 million mark.

Regardless, this will mean more players can dedicate more time and energy to just rugby. With this growth it would be fair to hope to see the CBS deal grow to feature at least another game a week, and with new regional deals will certainly grow to cover new markets.

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This all bodes well for the future of the game in the US and the overall quality of the Eagles leading into Japan. I for one cannot wait to see what the new MLR season brings.