With the 2018 Championship in pocket and three decisive pre-season wins under their belt, the Seattle Seawolves professional rugby team looks very strong ahead of the 2019 season opener on January 27th. But there are unknown waters ahead for our local boys.
To start the season, the Seattle Seawolves will face their nemesis Glendale (Colorado) Raptors in a rematch of 2018’s MLR Championship game. The Raptors beat the Seawolves twice during the regular season, only to lose in the crucial final game when the Seawolves answered each of the Raptors strengths with new and creative defenses. But the Raptors that will be traveling to the Seawolves home field at Tukwila’s Starfire Stadium are not the same team as last season.
In Major League Rugby, players are contracted to the league, not to the teams. For the inaugural season, several New York-area players signed to the Raptors roster, since there was no NY-based professional rugby team to play with. For the 2019 season Rugby United New York, or RUNY, has joined the MLR and – with a home team to play for – several key Raptors have returned home to play for RUNY in 2019.
New players have filled out the Raptors roster, but do not have much time on the field together yet. So it is an open question how much of the league-dominating Raptor spirit and skill will be in evidence in Tukwila on the 27th.
The rest of the Raptors strength comes from the deep rugby community and culture in their area, which brings us to more dark waters our Seawolves will have to navigate: Toronto and NYC.
For 2019 Major League Rugby has expanded from 7 to 9 teams, with the addition of the Toronto Arrows from Ontario, Canada and RUNY in NYC. Both are regions with long and proud histories of club-level rugby, and many area players have been featured on their national rugby teams. With their pedigrees, the Arrows and RUNY are the dark horses in this year’s MLR lineup.
Pre-season games for these expansion teams with limited resources – including no home field to play on – have not been up to a ‘professional’ level of play, and unclear demonstrations of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses. The true test of these new teams will be their first games of the season played against established MLR teams, who already have a full season of professional-level play under their belts.
They may also benefit from weakened MLR squads, who have star players away doing duty with their international teams.
Rugby is a worldwide sport with dominant teams from every continent, and many island nations like Fiji and Samoa fielding teams equal to – and often better than – large first-world nations. The Canadian national team is revitalized after a turbulent few years, while the USA Eagles are earning respect and accolades by placing in the top 13 teams in the world for the first time.
Rugby requires year-round commitment and training, so the more time playing high-level rugby, the better the players get. The best MLR players are invited to play for the Canadian and US national teams, giving them experience on a national stage, and playing against the best rugby players the world has to offer. Playing an international match earns the player a ‘cap’, and the most-capped players are the best in the nation.
Unfortunately, this means that some MLR teams can lose star players when they go into training for, and play in, international ‘test matches’ with their national side.
This year’s Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) takes place three weekends in February, and two weekends in March. Two of the matches – USA vs Uruguay, and USA vs Canada – will take place at the Seawolves home field, Starfire Stadium in Tukwila.
(Tickets to these matches are available now and going fast here: https://seattleseawolves.showare.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=7)
(More info available here: https://www.usarugby.org/2018/12/kick-off-times-announced-for-2019-americas-rugby-championship/ )
The Glendale Raptors have several players on the USA Eagles, who may not be available for play against the Seawolves early in the season. (Player rosters are generally released the day before a match, and show the 15 starters, and the 8 substitutes. Roster changes can happen up to game time, and are often a hotly debated topic amongst rugby aficionados.)
Which MLR teams will play their first few games of 2019 without star players, because those players are playing in national matches? Will the return of star players give weaker teams a boost in the second half of the season? Only time will tell… and time is another area of concern for the Seawolves…
Old Man Time
The Seattle Seawolves are swimming into further murky water: player age. Rugby is a young person’s sport, and part of the success of the Seawolves inaugural season can be attributed to the experience and coaching provided by many of their key players.
Rugby is still a fairly new sport in America, and there has been little incentive for a player to pursue further development of their rugby skills after college. With no professional league to join, and few positions available on the international team and even fewer international games, great rugby players graduated from college and went on to other things.
This has led to a small generation gap between the older players (scrum half Phil Mack is 33) and younger players (like Vili Toluta’u at 24) in both age and on-field experience. The Seawolves’ oldest player – Ray Barkwill, 36 – retired at the end of last season from the MLR, and now only plays periodically for the Canadian national team.
There is a big push in the PNW to evangelize rugby to school-age kids, to help deepen the pool of potential pro rugby players, but that takes time. And even at the relatively young age of 33, a rugby player knows their prime years are behind them.
Grassroots efforts like the Rainier Highlanders Junior Rugby Club are developing new young rugby talent. These programs can feed players into college programs, which include WSU, Central, and UW, and club-level play with teams like the Seattle Saracens.
But it will take time to develop new players, and as players get older, they get injured more and take longer to recover from games. It takes a roster of around 40 active players to field a team of 15 players and 8 substitutes for a full season of games.
The absolutely phenomenal fan reaction to the Seattle Seawolves has created visibility for the sport and these programs which provide a path to the Seawolves squad. But filling the player pipeline before our current stars age out of the game is an area of concern.
The Future of the MLR
Finally, it is important to remember that despite the initial successes, Major League Rugby is not the first professional rugby league to be established in America. While the MLR does have a robust business plan that past attempts to form a league have lacked, it is still a new league and relatively new sport trying to develop a market for their product.
Success is far from guaranteed. Some teams struggled to sell tickets and merchandise. Teams played on substandard pitches and venues, and fans faced logistical and communications issues that even most amateur sports leagues have solved.
The Seattle Seawolves have been a shining beacon of success, and other teams have taken notes. Completely sold out of all tickets for every single game last season. Almost all Season Tickets already sold for this season, and few single game tickets remaining. Complete sellout of all merchandise twice last season. Big-name sponsorship last season from Virginia Mason Medical Center. Big name sponsor returning this year, with the addition of BECU, and continued support of local businesses.
During the off-season other MLR teams spent time learning from the Seawolves’ experience and methods, and made many innovations of their own. New venues have been acquired, and teams are even building their own stadiums for their rugby teams. Fan clubs are gaining momentum across the league, and fans are forming traveling groups to go to away games with the Rugby 100 Club.
In the end, the MLR is a new sports business, and any number of things could go wrong before the sport reaches profitability.
Deep water fishes
So while there are some dark waters ahead with unknown monsters hiding in the murky gloom, the Seattle Seawolves are bred to navigate these waters as alpha predators. With the inaugural championship, rabid fan base, excellent sponsors, and passionate owners all working together collaboratively to bring the “hooligans’ game, played by gentlemen” into the mainstream, the future looks bright for the Seawolves.
As I write this, a notification came in that less than 100 SRO tickets are still available for the opening game next weekend against the Glendale Raptors… And the excitement will only grow from there.