I’ve never thought watching pre-season sporting events to be a valuable use of personal time, but tonight’s Major League Rugby (@usmlr) fixture was a pleasant exception.
The match was shown live on YouTube, and I hope to speak for all who watched – set our expectation levels very high for the future. It was a fluid match, not without it’s defensive lapses, but provided an overall level of flow that was enjoyable even for the most critical fan.
This was Utah Warriors first match in it’s history, and Glendale Raptors put on a solid performance showing why they are considered one of the frontrunners to capture the inaugural MLR title. The crowd, estimated at 9,100 (7,000 paid) at Rio Tinto Stadium in Salt Lake City, was treated to a first class event. In a smaller venue, with a more competitive home side (they will improve significantly), this would have made for a great atmosphere. It’s the first pre-season match. A lot to be excited about.
Video: Utah Warriors v. Glendale Raptors. Rio Tinto Stadium, Salt Lake. 3.30.18
For me, tonight was a game changer in terms of expectations and vision. Many recognizable American rugby names were on the pitch; Landry, Davies, Quill, Magie, Lasike, Whippy, et al and the professional presentation made it all the more worthy.
Here’s my take:
- We have 7 professional teams in an FTE environment from now through the summer. Players will be held to account by multiple thousands of spectators week in/week out on TV and in the stands. The quality of play will improve dramatically.
- There will be a ‘game of the week’ each week on CBS Sports Network. All other games will be telecast on ESPN OTT platform. This exposure to a casual ‘non rugby’ American audience and the professional presentations (standard now set by the Utah crew) will create a positive aura for the sport in new social circles. There will be more people tuning into our sport.
- ‘On the ground’, local marketing will get more butts in seats.. viewers on TV will see this, and interest will grow. Sponsors will grasp onto this… and the circle of financial viability can begin.
- A key to tonight’s presentation was the MLS stadium it was held in. Let’s hope as many MLR games as possible are held in these world class venues.
- I’d like to see names on shirts; more names on video graphics on TV. This can help the fan relate with the player and we can start to see ‘loyalty’ and following for individual players. Perhaps this leads to licensed gear sales. The league appears to be doing a good job seeking to create ‘connection’ between team and community.
- After 2-3 years… this league will draw serious attention from overseas. While the quality of play this year will be above anything we’ve had in the USA, it will improve year on year. We will start to see the World Class American athlete filtering into rugby at various levels. Rugby will be ‘legit’.
- The ‘overseas player’ component will shift. For the top level player at the twilight of his career, I’d see the MLR as a viable option – if the league can develop and sustain the financial growth/sustainability it should. We don’t need a bunch of wash-ups, but carefully selected players who can raise the standard for the Americans around them. Up and coming ‘academy’ type players will also seek the USA to call home for a portion of their career.
Many readers are thinking… big deal, what about the ‘youth’, ‘women’s game’ etc..
- A successful MLR will create exposure that will help bring many more youth, both boys and girls into the game.
- The teams are already working closely with community rugby (they say) and in Seattle there is a considerable effort to create the ‘pyramid’ of youth to the professional game.
- If the Men’s game grows, the Women’s game grows. And vice versa. MLR success is a great thing for all levels of rugby.
The MLR provides a vital link between all rugby ages and sexes. The on field ‘aspirational’ opportunities are clearly presented to young people (Boys and girls), and the overall awareness this professional league will provide will turbocharge the growth. ESPN and CBS Sports partnership and support is massive.
- June 2018: MLR will have a direct benefit on the performance of the USA Eagle Team that plays Russia, Scotland, and Canada during the June Test series. Each MLR player will be hardened by a good 8 straight weeks of quality rugby. We have not had sustained experience at this level before a test series, ever.
- By RWC 2019, there will be two full MLR seasons done. The USA Eagles have a brutal pool, and two years ago I might have said we could not win a game. We should be increasingly optimistic.
- In 5 years, at RWC 2023 and assuming MLR grows and develops as we will come to expect – I believe the USA will be a Top 10 team. We may not make the quarterfinals, but we will scare some of the big boys, and by that time will have captured our first, or several IRB scalps. At #15 now, the next 4 teams are all soon beatable considering the significant and immediate gains we will see from MLR.
- In 2027, I would hope that with the growth we see in youth and the pyramid of play developing – now fully enhanced with a functional, successful, and sustainable professional league, our USA Eagles team should be competing hard at the quarterfinal stage. At some point, we must begin to secure the Grade A American athlete to reach this level. MLR will help our exposure to reach these athletes.
- MLR will soon become the strongest non IRB professional rugby competition in the world, surpassing anything Japan, Italy, Georgia, Romania, has to offer.
Governance and Financial Requirements at the NGB
These predictions do not preclude some of the significant and severe issues we face at the USA Rugby level at this time. Our governance is a mess, and while significant and severe measures have been taken to right the ship at Rugby International Marketing LLC (RIM), our financial state at the NGB level (responsible for fielding all our National teams) is in near catastrophic state. These issues will be cleaned up, and I am confident a World Class leadership team will be put in place.
MLR sustainability will also create opportunities for sponsorship at the National level. Sponsors interested in Olympic gold medals and World Championships will view the MLR as a world class league, the stepping stone to International competition. Enter Fortune 500 sponsors for our USA teams.
Regardless of some issues at other levels, the MLR and all players, owners, and everyone it takes to put on this league – are doing their part. Let’s do ours. Buy a T-shirt or a hat online. Go to a game. Tell a friend. This is important. MLR success is vital for the growth of our sport in the USA. Tonight, my expectation and vision has increased significantly. Well done MLR. Bar is raised.
Other articles I have written on this topic:
- My Weekend with the Austin Huns Rugby Club/Community & some MLR News!
- On USA Rugby Vision, Strategy 2020, RWC 2018/2027, Age Grade, HP audit, & more on the Board/RIM
- Romania 23 – USA Eagles 10. The real reason Romania won; Top Tier Competition, Strategic Plan.