Major League Rugby: Inside rugby’s latest attempt to crack America
Numerous attempts at introducing professional rugby stateside have all failed. Finding a middle ground while introducing a ready-made product into the most competitive of sporting markets, ensuring rugby union is not forced to run before being able to find its feet has proven too difficult.
The well-intentioned but ultimately futile attempts, dating back to 1997 when professional rugby was just a year old, were all geared towards realising the sport’s potential in the U.S. But as Major League Rugby (MLR) gets underway on Saturday there is an air of optimism the game may have found a formula rooted in sustainability, development and promise.
MLR’s format will be familiar to devotees of Major League Soccer with a ‘single entity’ ownership model. Each team — seven feature in the inaugural competition — has to pay their wages and travel up front, alongside a fee with shares rewarded in turn.
“It’s a proven model,” MRL commissioner Dean Howes told ESPN, who brings MLS experience to the league, having previously been CEO of Real Salt Lake. “You have to build it all on concrete, or you won’t be around for long. You can have all the competition on the pitch, but the model keeps a balance between players and markets while making everyone on the membership side partners. It puts parity on the pitch.”
Unlike previous attempts, which were based around regional conferences, MLR sees Austin Elite, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and Utah Warriors competing in a single division, with Rugby United New York expected to join in 2019 alongside Dallas Griffins.
There are also suggestions of a team from Canada joining in the next couple of years. It is bubbling nicely, but the format is geared towards removing the risk of the league boiling over.
“It’s the right business model in the American sporting landscape,” Kimball Kjar, chief executive and general manager of Utah Warriors, told ESPN. “Once you get the core audience it will grow. It’s based around sustainability and scalability, ensuring our eyes aren’t bigger than the stomach.”
His team includes USA Eagles centre and former Chicago Bears fullback Paul Lasike, while there is experience in Tongan wing Fetu’u Vainikolo, who has played in three of the world’s top leagues. But in the embryonic stages of this tournament, there is a tentativeness and practicality around recruitment.
The salary cap, believed to be in the region of $350,000 — by comparison the 12-team Aviva Premiership’s cap in England is currently at £7m ($9.96m) per club — means well-known international names are at a premium, but there is plenty of young American talent keen to showcase their ability, alongside established USA Eagles like scrum-half Nate Augspurger. Then there is speedster Taku Ngwenya, who shot to fame in the 2007 World Cup for outsprinting legendary Springboks winger Bryan Habana.
The star overseas player will be found in Houston SaberCats’ centres following their capture of Fiji’s Olympic Sevens gold medal-winning captain Osea Kolinisau. But the scarcity of luminaries will not detract from the spectacle and the sensible recruitment shows collective awareness among the owners of the pitfalls their predecessors fell into.
Teams from Major League Rugby and outside — including the Ontario Arrows — have been contesting exhibition matches ahead of the competition’s kick-off. Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
But what is most impressive, from the outside looking in, is the choice of coaches. San Diego Legion have turned to Rob Hoadley, who played and coached at Wasps, while Houston appointed former Ireland prop Justin Fitzpatrick. Both have acted as assistant coaches for the Eagles and know the U.S. rugby landscape well.
“This is the first professional sport in U.S. history that has a national broadcasting deal right off the bat — NFL, NBA, NHL all had regional deals,” Fitzpatrick told ESPN. “It’s a big statement of intent. There has always been a bit of mystique about playing rugby in the States, it’s certainly a draw for foreign players.
“People want to come and ply their trade here. There are some very good players here and there are also a lot of athletes here who have come through other sports and as it’s been the fastest-growing sport for the last five years, we’re finding more and more athletes are looking to rugby. There’s a long way to go but we’re on the right direction, no doubt about it.”
Looking to the future, ex-England and Bath coach Mike Ford is teed up to coach Dallas, while former Eagles coach Mike Tolkin is pencilled in for the New York team.
The last incarnation of a domestic league in the U.S. was the five-team PRO Rugby in 2016. Despite a three-year rights deal with USA Rugby — the governing body of the sport in the U.S. — it fizzled out and with that contract expiring this month, MLR is next up. USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne is excited about the new league, pointing to a “great ownership group”, “aligned strategies” and the focus on “growing the grassroots game in each market.”
So it is with much hope and optimism that this latest attempt at cracking the professional rugby code stateside gets off and running. The formula is sound, now the rugby has a chance to shine.
“Everybody is really excited, we’ve worked really hard over the last two years to launch this league,” Howes said. “There is of course a little apprehension and there are things we need to learn, and continue to grow.
“We can’t be happy to be where we are in relation to other sports. We have a lot to do to become relevant to the general sports fan. We’re excited, but smart and experienced enough to know we have a lot of work ahead of us on the business side. It’s a wonderful sport, there’s constant action and it’s going to be fantastic.”
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