Friday, July 28, 2017

Should We Be Worried About Major League Rugby?

It's perfectly reasonable to think that the above headline is ridiculous. All you have to do is look at Houston's signing of Osea Kolinisau this week to say that Major League Rugby is progressing toward their inaugural season. However, with now less than six months before players would be reporting to training camps what the competition will exactly look like is up in the air. Should we be worried?

Let's start with the positives. When you talk to folks in and around MLR they talk about how this is being done organically. The idea is that MLR teams, for the most part, and growing out of existing rugby clubs and communities. A lot of the infrastructure is already built in and there is a base of support that can help make things happen. Additionally, the league salaries are mostly going to be on a gameday basis. That's more sustainable from a payroll perspective than a season salary. Obviously there are exceptions for bigger name players like Kolinisau but when you aren't shelling out 20k for each player it's much more affordable. Even if a player played 12 matches for a club at $500 a game that's only 6k for the whole year.

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Another positive is that the league has buy-in from all members. Reportedly each team had to put up a good chunk of money just to make it this far. Few people would make that type of financial commitment unless they were serious about doing something. The competition also seems to have the backing of stakeholders within U.S.A. Rugby which is helpful as well.

All of that said, there are things to worry about. When you look at the status of each team it becomes even more apparent that what we think MLR will look is probably not how it will turn out:

Glendale Raptors--No problems here. They have the backing of the City of Glendale as well as a private investor. They have their own stadium and a group of players as strong as any in the country. They could rival any PRO team in terms of talent.

Houston Strikers--Again, no problems. The Strikers have made a lot of good signings in the past few months and they have a solid plan. You have to also give them a lot of credit for being active in the media as well. They face the the task of building a team from scratch, including a fan base. Having an active presence locally is only going to help.

Austin Huns--Like the Raptors and the Strikers they seem to have everything is place. They have the players, they coaching staff, and the organization to be successful.

Rugby Utah--Utah may not have brought in national team players or overseas players but they have a very solid organization, a great rugby market in Utah, and the ability to be successful. They are choosing to use a development model with local players and given the talent in Utah it's only a matter of time before they reach another level. They may struggle in the first year but as an organization they won't be any problem.

Seattle--Once you get past the four teams above it gets a little murky. Nothing has been heard from Seattle since they were included in the press release. They also lost their coach to Houston as well as one of their best players. It's worrying that nothing has come out of Seattle but at the same time the Saracens, who would presumably be the base of the team, are as good of a club as there is in America. They may have had a drop in level of play from a few years ago but with Canadian talent from British Columbia presumably available they can create something. Again, without info it's hard to tell.

Dallas--They made news with their hiring of Mike Ford as head coach but they haven't done anything since. They have no presence in the local media and it's unclear who is in their player base. The Griffins, who are supposedly behind the team, have had some troubles in recent years and rumors have swirled that they don't have the financial backing they once had. You would think that after making a splash with the Ford hiring that they would have followed it up with something. It's worrying they haven't. Like some other teams on this list it's hard to see them competing with teams that are already stocking their rosters with some of the best talent in the country.

New Orleans--The team hired Nate Osborne, which is a great hire, but like Dallas there hasn't been anything else besides a few social media posts. Like Dallas, if they are going to rely on local help they could be in a lot of trouble talent wise.

Kansas City--They've partnered with the Blues but outside of social media accounts that promote the Blues there hasn't been anything.

Minneapolis--We haven't heard anything from them and they even lost Osborne to New Orleans.

So when you actually look at the list there are only four solid teams ready and one or two maybes. That's not good. The idea of a nine team competition is probably not going to happen and if it did the talent disparity and readiness between the top teams and the rest could make for a lot of blowouts. Say what you will about PRO Rugby but at least Steve Lewis did his best to make parity among the teams.

Even more, the experience from PRO Rugby looks to have made some players skittish, especially if they are going to get paid on a per game basis. Having Colorado and Utah in the competition is a good thing but you are also going to miss out on all the talent in California and the East Coast. Maybe they have a plan for that but we don't know. They haven't been the best at communicating.

We've reached out MLR several times to try and get answers to some of these key questions but we're always told they can't comment right now. Some of that is understandable. You don't want to announce something unless you are solid but at the same time the fact that basic things like "where are you going to play" and "what teams will be in the competition" haven't been answered by now are worrying. They also talked about waiting to have a PR team in place but if there is one there isn't an evidence it's doing something. Fans are ready to get excited but they need something to get excited about.

Again, we want to stress that the purpose of this piece is not to downgrade MLR. Far from it. The league's success is only good for American rugby and therefore American rugby news websites. We want it to succeed. However, at this point it feels like some of the same blindness we as a community showed to PRO Rugby because we were so desperate for professional rugby is shining through again. That in no way is meant to equate MLR with PRO it's just meant to encourage people to take a step back and possibly tamper some of their expectations. That doesn't mean cheer any less or get any less excited with a team signs a gold medalist--make no mistake, that is big news--but more to be happy with what emerges.


  1. It's fascinating seeing the growing pains of starting a completely new sports league. 50 years from now, assuming there will be professional rugby in the US, will it be on par to professional soccer or the big 4 sports? The lack of communication is frustrating, just as it is from USA rugby. Unlike Doug from Pro Rugby, nobody on Glendale Mount Olympus has given us an explanation as to why the 1st professional league collapsed, except through memos, tweets, and Pat Clifton articles. They need to engage the active player and retired player fan base through video messaging. It's all radio silence from them on every subject, including the coach search, pro leagues, and why USA is only playing Germany and Georgia in November, which is disheartening.

  2. It could be that there are key dates surrounding PRO-USAR issue that the MLR wants to be on the other side of before announcing.

    Utah with no NT players? Cullen and Jensen played for Rugby Utah last year.

    1. There's also BYU, Utah, and Utah State Rugby Clubs's like a ripe prickly pear.

  3. Minnesota is going to make announcements in the next month if not this week.

  4. Seattle Seawolves CEO is Adrian Balfour. The Seawolves will support the Saracens Rugby Club. You also saw the announcement of the Sarries U23 Development side, although this is not an academy it can be surmised that this is the foundation of one.

  5. For every American who has aspirations for themselves to play at a high level, and for our national teams to play at a high level, it is extremely important for this league to succeed. This point cannot be stressed enough. Even though there is no national strategic plan regarding rugby, the MLR is an all in moment in my opinion. Failure of this league would be catastrophic for the success of our national teams (assuming USAR is planning on using this entity for talent development).

    1. Agree with you 100% TR. Very important to have even a basic professional setup so that they can play consistent games at the highest level and be paid to do so. Whether or not USAR officially uses MLR for talent development is unknown, however having a league of 10-15 teams play each week on get broadcasted on TV/internet makes it much easier to find diamonds in the rough.

  6. Based on the information that is readily available there is no reason for this skeptic to believe that the MLR enterprise is built on a strong foundation. 6 months out and we don't know venues, schedules, broadcasting plans, etc etc etc. When it comes to professional rugby I am very much from Missouri. Show me. Until then I remain skeptical.

  7. Betteridge would laugh at the headline, BTW

  8. The concept has more value than Pro Rugby did, but you need a sustainable model that is built on transparency and collaboration from all stakeholders. If the motive is to make money forget it, the game needs to evolve on the back of what it stands for, and that does not include profit. This competition needs to build and consolidate over the next 3-5 years and then and only just then, it can be a feeder pathway for a stand alone national singular franchise based out of DC to compete in a fully professional league, somewhere in the UK or Europe. By the same token, a repeat of this concept could be exercised on the west coast playing in a Pacific rim pro competition based out of California and competing in a different season. This way you will have a two pronged development pathway that will grow the National team exponentially.