The road to success for Major League Rugby

Working Class Rugger Roar Guru

By Working Class Rugger, Working Class Rugger is a Roar Guru

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

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    The Crowd Says (31)

    • Roar Guru

      July 10th 2018 @ 2:29am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | July 10th 2018 @ 2:29am | ! Report

      Informative read, thank you.

    • July 10th 2018 @ 7:22am
      tc said | July 10th 2018 @ 7:22am | ! Report

      WCR, that was a good shake down of the initial MLR season. It looks a lot like it will be successful in the future, especially with so many new teams already hankering to get involved.
      If Twiggy Forrest gets his pro comp up and running next year,as well as the rumoured South American and Eastern European leagues, then it’s looking bright for international rugby union going forward. It goes without saying, if more countries take up pro rugby, then it can only be good for the World Cup in the future. Anyway interesting times for our sport.

      • July 10th 2018 @ 4:13pm
        Working Class Rugger said | July 10th 2018 @ 4:13pm | ! Report

        A new club based group has also been formed in Spain with the intent on moving their largely semi-pro/amateur league into a professional league the the next few seasons. There’s a lot going on in regards to growth at the professional levels of the game at present.

    • July 10th 2018 @ 8:29am
      Shop said | July 10th 2018 @ 8:29am | ! Report

      Thanks for the article. It sounds like a very positive start to the comp. Hopefully it becomes a real success.

    • July 10th 2018 @ 10:07am
      Algamesh said | July 10th 2018 @ 10:07am | ! Report

      Funny how America can have a national competition, but Australia cannot. We have to fly to the other side of the world for some reason to play where noone wants to watch.

      • Roar Guru

        July 10th 2018 @ 12:54pm
        Corne Van Vuuren said | July 10th 2018 @ 12:54pm | ! Report

        Funny how Super rugby has been fine for Aussies for nearly two decades, yet the last couple of years complaints over playing in SA has increased exponentially.

        Where would Australia rugby be without the involvenent of SA rugby last 20 years?

        • July 10th 2018 @ 9:59pm
          Wise Old Elf said | July 10th 2018 @ 9:59pm | ! Report

          Probably being played on free to air tv and not after midnight.

      • July 13th 2018 @ 6:08pm
        Nicolai said | July 13th 2018 @ 6:08pm | ! Report

        Australia do have a national competition — its called — NRC.
        It’s still a baby but will grow!!!

        Super Rugby is an international competition

    • July 10th 2018 @ 1:22am
      rugby365 said | July 10th 2018 @ 1:22am | ! Report

      I’ve been able to watch all the games this season. Its been a very competitive competition. Great fan engagement as well. If they are able to keep up the momentum this league can go far.

      • July 10th 2018 @ 4:16pm
        Working Class Rugger said | July 10th 2018 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

        We already have the first pre-season game announced with LA hosting Ontario in December. And it looks like the season will kick off on January 26th with the teams in the North/North East having their games front loaded in order to mitigate the weather issues in those regions.

    • July 10th 2018 @ 6:41pm
      Joe said | July 10th 2018 @ 6:41pm | ! Report

      Great article. Great to see the US building a domestic Comp. Promises to be great for the game in the long term. Some big challenges over there no doubt, with NFL and all of the other competing sports. I wonder how they are positioning the competition in terms of dates and times, against the other big sports? With growth in Europe, Rugby is truly on the right path. Now we just need to get it right in Australia!

      • July 10th 2018 @ 7:21pm
        Working Class Rugger said | July 10th 2018 @ 7:21pm | ! Report

        Next season kicks off on Jan 25th. A week before the Super Bowl. There’s inevitably going to be a degree of crossover with other competitions but they cannot concern themselves with anything other than themselves and developing the MLR. Worrying about conflicting with other competitions will only slow its progress.

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