North America’s Major League Rugby (MLR) season kicks off on January 26. It will be MLR’s second campaign after a successful roll out in 2018.
Nine teams will compete this year with Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows joining the league’s foundation teams—Seattle (champions), Glendale (runners up), San Diego, New Orleans, Utah, Austin and Houston. The Arrows are the only Canadian-based team with the others all located in the States.
Naturally, more teams equals more games. The total number of league matches will more than double this year from 32 to 75 (including finals). Teams will play each of their rivals twice in a full home-and-away season. Just like a year ago, there will be semi-finals for the top four teams culminating in a final on June 16.
Last year was a giant leap forward for rugby in the USA. The inaugural MLR season was the largest club rugby undertaking in the nation’s history. The upward ascent is likely to continue this year with the uptick in games, and several teams and coaching staffs established after a solid freshman year.
The league will also be buoyed by an influx of new foreign players. The cap on overseas players has doubled from five to ten per team this year, resulting in a seismic shift in the diversity of the league. Players competing this season will hail from no less than 20 countries from five different continents.
Representatives from top-tier nations like New Zealand, England and Australia will be among those suiting up each weekend, including Paddy Ryan, a fully-capped Australian international.
More teams, better players and a longer season are all positives looking forward. However, there are caveats.
MLR is still a relatively low-payroll competition, which leaves the best American talent vulnerable to the fatter wallets of wealthy overseas clubs.
Paul Lasike – one of the stars of MLR’s first season – is now strutting his stuff with Harlequins in the United Kingdom. Star USA International backs AJ MacGinty (Sale Sharks) and Blaine Scully (Cardiff Blues) are also well established on the other side of the Atlantic.
But this is just a minor barrier. Sporting competitions can still thrive even with some of the country’s best players being based abroad.
One example is the A-League in Australia. This competition has been successful for years despite most of the elite Aussies playing overseas at lucrative European clubs.
Their recipe for success was signing international talent to bolster the local stocks, television accessibility for viewers and creating tribal loyalties among the fan-base.
MLR ticks two of these boxes. In addition to the aforementioned Paddy Ryan (San Diego Legion), Kane Thompson (New Orleans Gold) is another big catch for the league this year.
The Samoan international has played 33 times for his country, and has extensive experience playing club rugby in both New Zealand and Europe.
Another noteworthy acquisition is legendary sevens player Osea Kolinisau (Houston SaberCats).
The flying Fijian has done it all in the abbreviated form of the game, including two World Sevens titles and an Olympic gold medal. It is not just these three, there are plenty more.
Granted, there is no Beauden Barrett, Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell among the newbies. That is beyond the reach of MLR at this stage. However, the new additions will raise interest in the competition, as well as the standard of play overall.
Coverage on television will be another huge boon this season. Games are set to be broadcast weekly on both free-to-air and cable TV platforms, including CBS televising a national game of the week during the regular season, as well as the finals.
ESPN has also come to the party. The cable giant’s commitment to 18 matches will bring the action into the homes of not just Americans, but people all over the world
MLR’s challenge will be capturing (and keeping) fans in a very competitive sports environment. Their plan is to build from the ground up by engaging young people at schools with every MLR team playing its part. MLR Commissioner Dean Howe explained the approach via George Ramsay of CNN.
“Every team in the league is charged with getting into the high schools and improving the high school programs … It’s going to be a process but we’re going to focus and try to influence every one of those bands from youth to high school to club, college, pro.”
This will help MLR teams gain more recognition and attract new people to the brand. This may, in turn, translate into more success at getting bums on seats at games where there was mixed results last year. Seattle drew good attendances with an average of 3760 patrons at their home games. The league average overall was 2325, according to Reddit.
That needs to improve – and it should, too, with all the noted improvements to the league’s second edition.
The momentum should not stop this year, either. Three new clubs – the New England Freejacks, Washington D.C. and Atlanta have been announced as expansion teams in 2020. Then there is Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Vancouver all waiting to get a piece of the action.
USA rugby seems to be on a nice upward trajectory in general. The national team is at its highest ebb in history after defeating tier-one nation Scotland, as well as Samoa last year.
The Eagles are currently ranked No. 12 in the world, their highest position ever. Rugby remains one the country’s fastest growing sports with the USA rugby website listing 123,719 current memberships.
The sleeping giant may just be awakening.
It is now up to the players, coaches and the league to deliver a product that will suction viewers both to games and to the box for their weekly rugby fix. As the A-League has shown, it does not have to be the very best product, but a good one, to be successful.
Go get ‘em boys!