This weekend appears to be a relative tipping point for Major League Rugby (MLR) interest. Season openers are three weeks away. Vast quantity of conversations containing “@USMLR”. Still in pre-season, expectations were raised significantly with the magnificent showcase staged at Rio Tinto Stadium by Utah Warriors in their inaugural match. 9,100 (approx. 7K paid) is noteworthy. Possibly a record for a ‘club’ match in American rugby history. The next day, audiences were treated to an MLR pre-season match that sits on the other end of the entertainment spectrum from the Utah event. I refer to the NOLA v AUS event.
Outcomes of the conversations: Many people have many different expectations, wants, needs, desires from MLR.
Here’s my take:
First, Thank-you to ALL the owners of anything MLR related from the entire American Rugby community, for doing what you’ve done. Congratulations as well. To get this far is a monumental achievement. I’ve met many of you and valued the discussion; so thanks Mark, Jeremy, James, JC, Richard, Peter, et al. The vision, politicking, and now implementation/execution of the league’s plans is very commendable. It’s not without its issues and clearly there are some trendsetting franchises, and some laggards. Some of the stronger teams on the field, may be the weakest off it.
Bottom line, whatever happens – these MLR pioneers have shown literally massive courage and commitment to get this thing off the ground. Personally, regardless of medium of message delivery, I’ve been clear since playing in the ’90s on the absolute need for a top tier domestic rugby competition in the United States. Regardless of what got us here (Super/PRO), The MLR can get us where we need to go. The guys leading the charge at MLR are top shelf.
MLR, & any ‘Professional’ Entity – it’s a 24/7 gig
The aforementioned owners, have created a business – the Major League Rugby. There are currently 7 franchises. Anyone not directly involved in this league, or the franchises should be considered ‘customers’. I am a ‘customer’ of the league, just like anyone caring to read this article is probably a customer of the league. Potential sponsors to not only this league, but all Rugby in America are customers of MLR. In marketing the MLR Brand, and the underlying franchise brands – the community must realize there is no room for anything ‘amateur’. It’s on. 24/7/365
We all have differing customer expectations from what this business (i.e. MLR) will provide for us. There are various reasons for wanting to see MLR succeed:
- A player might aspire to play in MLR
- A parent might aspire to have their child play in MLR
- A rugby fan might want to attend quality matches on a regular basis in a ‘professional’ setting. MLR will provide this.
- Some people just want a team to cheer for.
- Make money
- Like the kit
Successful MLR = Successful Eagles Team = More Attn. = Sponsorship/$$
For me, the MLR inserts a step into the ‘pathway/development’ model that is vital and essential if we want our National teams to ever hope to compete on the Tier 1 World Stage. (If you are satisfied where we are, please read no further – we will struggle to get aligned). It provides a common place where our top players can mix it up week in/week out, competing in something that matters. A professional league, with ‘real’ butts in seats (4,000 standard), earning respect from one another and the world. Ultimately these battle hardened players will one day represent the USA Eagles. The development will be astronomical year on year. We can raise to a level where we are actually competing at the top level, not just dreaming about it.
Due to the financial debacle at Rugby International Marketing, RIM, our NGB, USA Rugby can barely field the aforementioned National Teams. Accordingly, major donor philanthropic groups, i.e. Golden Eagles, and fledgling Eagles XVs Club (EFC) has formed to create a formal platform for major donor philanthropy to specifically support our National teams, Men & Women, 7s & XVs.
Accordingly, those making ‘asks’ of such potential major donors are completely reliant to a certain extent on the Professionalism of the MLR (on AND off the field) to set an exacting standard. These standards will be in effect wrt on-field development as MLR stars are selected to represent the Eagles. These standards must also be present now in the quality of the presentation of the event. It’s the big leagues. The world is watching.
As a customer with the aforementioned needs, I am seeking for MLR to constantly show up as a fully professional organization, one that anyone holding the Brand would be proud of. My perceived negative comments about the NOLA Gold game yesterday, simply was disappointment in the Brand appearance. It was not critical, it was just disappointed.
It is clear that in several professional Rugby playing markets, Real Estate, i.e. a place to play; a venue – are difficult to come by. Seattle D1 and Premier teams have difficulty finding IRB regulation fields (pressed by British Columbian bureaucrats, but that is a different matter altogether). It appears NOLA has a similar issue. If teams can’t get the real estate, i.e. New Orleans this weekend, they should constantly seek to partner with those that owns stadiums that are suitable. The same holds true at the NGB level, USA Rugby. Coincidentally, there is a vested Director level Rugby executive who works for a company that owns 6 Major League Soccer (MLS) stadiums. It would behoove all involved in rugby in America to seek to partner at any and all levels.
Better news at NOLA?
Apparently NOLA has poured several thousand dollars into sod for their field. They also are working on a stadium build. That’s great news. However, it’s not great for the rapidly appreciating value of the MLR Brand to have an event publicized to the public such as yesterday’s NOLA v AUS match.
The World is Watching:
For those who may not understand or think the world is watching, here is a text I got 10 minutes after kickoff of this NOLA match:
“Wow Tony. I’m watching this Austin Nola game now and I cannot believe what I’m seeing. This is D3 stuff” – A World Rugby playing National Team Men’s head coach.
MLR will succeed. There will be some inevitable failures. At this early stage there are some protagonists showing some questionable values, but let’s wait on that. There will also be huge successes.
In mid-summer, we should see a final contested in front of 10,000 people (if preseason match attendance can serve as a forecast), in a hyped setting. I make this prediction not knowing where the final is scheduled…I hope it is done where one of the teams is playing a home match!
At this stage, playing a final in a ‘neutral’ city may actually crush potential attendance. If Houston, Glendale, Utah & possibly Seattle/SD were hosting a final they were participating in – I believe there would at least 10K at each location. Houston and Utah for sure.
Next year’s growth will have significant impact. The likes of Rugby United New York (RUNY), and Chicago Lions are raring to go already.
Only Get One Chance to Make a Positive First Impression
Whatever your ‘customer expectations’, as in all aspects of life: MLR (as with any person/entity) only gets one chance to make a positive first impression. The standards are high. Imagine courting a major donor this weekend, offering him/her an opportunity to watch what is currently available in American rugby. Pre-season or not, Saturdays NOLA presentation would hurt the brand if widespread. Perhaps the match should simply not have been shown online.
The impact of playing in a city/school park, vs. an enclosed stadium to create the proper professional atmosphere is enormous. These comments are not meant to be divisive in nature. Just my opinion.
And,…this is only the beginning for MLR. Imagine 5 years from now! #8in28
TR 168, Co-Founder EFC
Author’s note: Read prior articles for hint on National Team Coach who provided quote above.
Other Articles I’ve written on this topic: