Coming in to the second season of Major League Rugby (MLR), the Seattle Seawolves looked to be the team to beat after defeating the dominant Glendale Raptors and being the first to raise the MLR Championship Shield.
But just three weeks in to the 2019 season, and oh how the tables have turned! With the Raptors yet to win a game, the Seawolves beaten in consecutive weeks by the San Diego Legion and the NOLA Gold – who now stand top of the league with three wins – the story of Major League Rugby has a huge plot twist.
Which is exactly what the MLR needs to continue the growth of rugby in North America.
Upping the Game
Starting the second season made the MLR the longest-lived professional rugby league in the USA; but profitability is still over the horizon. So far, only one team plays in a rugby-only facility and only one other team has begun construction on theirs. All other teams play in a range of high school, college, and soccer stadiums. Ticket sellouts are so rare as to be a newsworthy occurrence.
As a business, the MLR needs to attract the big-name sponsors to bring in the kinds of money that will allow players to quit their day jobs and transition to full-time athletes. Romancing these big-name sponsors requires a good story, and the story of 2019 couldn’t be any more exciting.
With only one win all last season and the poorest pitch in the league, the New Orleans Gold were not on anyone’s list to be contenders this year. However, with a much-improved venue and some hard work in the off-season, the NOLA Gold have roared into the lead and put the entire league on notice.
The NOLA fans are also turning out to support their team in much bigger numbers this year. At the game this weekend, NOLA fans set up a crawfish boil and chicken jambalaya feast for us visiting Seawolves fans. During the feast I had the opportunity to talk with a number of diehard Saints fans, who are just fed up with the NFL, and looking for other ways to spend their time and money.
With a history of club rugby going back to the early 1970’s, an undercurrent of rugby has flowed beneath the city for decades. After the Superbowl fiasco, and the NOLA Gold beating both the MLR Champions and runners-up from last season, excitement for all things rugby is is growing amongst the disillusioned Saints fans.
Known for epic tailgating, several Saints fans have brought their set up to a field next door to Archbishop Shaw Stadium. A wide circle of grass is easily accessible from the road, and surrounded by low-hanging oak trees to tailgate under. Offering me another beer, Buzz – a local player from the 70’s – paints a vivid picture of the future, with a stage in the middle of the field featuring live music, entertaining everyone under the trees boiling crawfish, making jambalaya, and bringing their epic Saints-style tailgate to NOLA Gold games.
The rise of the Gold is not the only story in the MLR that should interest any fan of good sports.
The new Aviva stadium in Houston is a bit behind schedule and impacting their season, forcing the team to play some games in another interim stadium. Rugby New York will be playing their games in an iconic Coney Island location. The reigning Seawolves have stumbled mightily, lost the iconic Vili Toluta’u to a broken leg, and are scrambling to find their mojo to #DefendTheShield. Finally, what’s up with the Raptors, who utterly dominated last season but can’t seem to get any W’s this season? The MLR is full of chewy sports stories, and the media are eating it up.
On the world stage, the USA Eagles national rugby team will be playing on two MLR fields for the Americas Cup Challenge (ARC); Glendale’s Infinity Park and Tukwila’s Starfire Stadium. Bringing international games to two hotspots of rugby that are already drawing fans and players to the MLR.
USA on International Stage
Another international exhibition of the faster-paced version of rugby with only seven players (“Sevens” or “7s” rugby) kicks off again this year in Las Vegas in March. The USA 7s side is currently dominant and tied for first place with New Zealand, and leading the supernaturally-skilled Fiji team by 4 points. (HSBC Rugby 7s link: https://www.usasevens.com/las-vegas/)
With international teams and players coming to North America, the USA national teams being competitive on the world stage (men’s and women’s 15s, as well as men’s and women’s 7s teams are all outstanding), more attention will come to the MLR, too. Drawing bigger crowds, selling more tickets and merchandise, and more news about the interesting stories emerging from the MLR will help more Americans get introduced to this amazing sport. And, ultimately, bring in the sponsor bucks that will get MLR players full-time salaries and focused fully 100% on rugby. With a few standout players on international teams already, making MLR players full-time athletes will bring the level of play up, and ensure even more American players get invited to play internationally, with the Eagles, or other teams overseas.
This may finally be the year that rugby gets serious attention from the average American fan, and becomes a viable goal for the next generation of players to strive for. The fuel is there. The spark is lit. Let’s make 2019 the Year of American Rugby.
It’s about time.