Tuesday, January 2, 2018

5 Questions For MLR: Will The Fans Show Up?

Today we're continuing a five part series asking some key questions about Major League Rugby. This isn't meant as a criticism or praise but more of a straightforward examination of some of the key things that will be vital to the success of MLR.

Professional anything, let alone rugby, depends on fans showing up not just in the stands but on the screen as well. It's simple, no money coming in, no league. For some start-up, smaller leagues they can be patient and slowly build their audience. For others they need more of a strong start in order to sustain themselves. It doesn't take a large scale examination to know that it's the ones that are on a slow burn that survive better and by that standard Major League Rugby is on the right track.

In our numerous conversations with those involved in the competition the one phrase that continually comes up is "they are doing that right." It's the rugby equivalent of the Sixers "trust the process." What the people we've talked to mean is that all MLR sides are looking not to impose themselves on the rugby communities they come from but to integrate themselves.  That integration has had some hits and misses but overall it's been a positive.

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One of PRO Rugby's biggest weaknesses in drawing fans to games, and if we're being honest they actually had some solid turnout in certain markets, was reaching out to youth clubs. In all of the areas in which MLR is involved have very solid youth programs that should bring in players and parents. The Utah Warriors alone have thousands of kids playing rugby in Utah they can draw from. In our conversations it is clear that there has been good outreach in most markets and you are going to see youth players involved in some fashion.

So what can we expect in turnout. Really the only comparisons we have so far are PRO Rugby and other smaller competitions in other sports. PRO brought in roughly 2,000 fans per match but a lot of that was driven by certain markets like Denver, Sacramento, and San Diego lead the league (two of which are in MLR). Others like San Francisco suffered. A lot of that comes down to venue. Most of the MLR markets have good venues but some like NOLA are going to be limited their first year. Most others have the potential to surpass PRO Rugby.

Other competitions like minor league soccer and Major League Lacrosse draw better than what PRO Rugby did. They get between 3-5,000 fans per match. That is ideally what MLR needs to be shooting for. It won't come the first season and some markets are going to suffer while some others might take off. If MLR can approach the 3,000 mark in the first season they should celebrate. If they can do a little better than PRO Rugby they should be alright.

As much as butts in the seats matter so do eyes on the screen. This is where Major League Rugby has a major advantage and could see a lot of success. Their deal with the CBS Sports Network is going to give people a chance to discover rugby. We already know the rugby community will probably tune in but now they can find some new fans. That was PRO Rugby's problem. It was unlikely that someone was going to discover PRO Rugby and that could happen to MLR. It should be tempered somewhat as fewer and fewer people subscribe to cable. However, it is a very positive sign.

Obviously we're not going to know MLR's attendance before people show up (Houston take on the Seattle Saracens this weekend!). If marketing efforts bear a reward then MLR should be fine. Except for teams like San Diego others like Seattle, Utah, and Houston have been excellent at marketing. That is going to go a very long way. Still, even without knowing how many people will attend all of the signs are their that MLR is going to have success.

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