Major League Rugby, a new US professional men’s rugby union competition, will kick off in seven cities in April.
From April, seven teams from Houston to Seattle will contest a new pro league. New York, Dallas and Toronto are among cities looking to play in year two.
The league earned attention this month when it announced a TV deal with CBS Sports. Less visibly, according to multiple sources close to the project, a New York team preparing for entry in season two counts UFC star Conor McGregor among potential investors.
In August, McGregor lost to former boxing world champion Floyd Mayweather in a Las Vegas megafight that earned him a minimum $30m. The New York team is evidently thinking big: John “JBL” Layfield, a former WWE wrestler now involved in rugby development in Bermuda, is already attached to the project. Representatives for McGregor did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
MLR has a done deal to herald: CBS said it will show “a 13-game package with 10 weeks of regular-season coverage … and two weeks of postseason, including the semifinals and the first MLR Championship Game”. A source said MLR will be shown in a primetime slot on Saturday nights although the exact channel and platform is yet to be confirmed.
MLR commissioner Dean Howes told the Guardian: “Across all media in the US there is a growing awareness of rugby, an appetite just because the game has an ongoing clock, it has a great deal of appeal, it’s constant action.”
NBC shows the Aviva Premiership, sevens and collegiate rugby and has signed for the Six Nations and World Cup. Major broadcasters are in. The question now is whether viewers are too.
“I think what has not yet been proven in the US,” Howes said, “is can we make rugby relevant to the sports media market. And that’s going to take teamwork.”
Following the example of Major League Soccer – Howes was chief executive of Real Salt Lake – MLR is a “single entity” league, looking to build from a realistic base. Each team has a share and has paid a bond of around $500,000 to compete.
Year one is set to feature teams in Seattle, San Diego, Glendale (Colorado), Salt Lake City, Houston, Austin and New Orleans. Partly as a result of a professed determination to knit the league into existing rugby communities, teams are informally linked to prominent amateur clubs, for example Seattle Saracens for the MLR Seawolves and Austin Huns in the same city as the Austin Elite MLR side.
New York, home to Old Blue, New York Athletic Club, New York Rugby Club and more, has announced entry in 2019. The possible involvement of McGregor is not the only Irish flavour: games will likely be held at Gaelic Park in the Bronx, potentially beginning with an exhibition against Boston in March. Fordham University, a Catholic college also in the city’s most northerly borough, is another possible venue.
Other cities variously reported to be up for inclusion after year one include Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, Vancouver and Toronto, where the Ontario Arrows are making visible preparations. They share a city with rugby league’s Toronto Wolfpack, whose first year of transatlantic play has prompted reports of a New York team, playing at Red Bull Arena. League’s encouraging start in North America may yet give US union projects a hurry up, but MLR has plenty of competitors in its own sport.
Another domestic league, PRO Rugby, completed a five-team season in 2016 before falling dormant amidst disputes over finance and jurisdiction. Its New York-based owner, Doug Schoninger, said in a statement PRO was “still very much active and looking forward to our next season”. However, PRO’s sanctioning agreement with USA Rugby has not been renewed. It runs out in April 2018, the same month MLR is scheduled to begin play, likely on its last weekend. Schoninger has threatened to sue.
Otherwise, the Pro14 is still considering a US franchise, potentially in Washington DC, and the Premiership will be back for a third regular-season game, possibly in February 2019 having staged games in March in 2016 and September in 2017. This week, USA Rugby announced that the Stormers and Bulls from South Africa will play a Super Rugby preseason game in Los Angeles in February 2018. Super 7s, United World Sports’ domestic sevens league, plans to launch next year.
Howes confirmed that MLR is not presently sanctioned by USA Rugby but said: “This sport needs a destination for it to become relevant here in the US, it needs to have that crown at the top, so young players, whether youth or high school or university or club, have a place that they can aspire to get to. We’re trying to create that.
“Our goals and our objectives are almost a mirror image of the goals and the objectives of USA Rugby or the World Rugby organisation. We’re here to build this sport in the United States.”
Players will be drawn from the top levels of North American club rugby, with each team allowed five overseas picks. Big names are scarce but Fiji’s Olympic champion sevens captain, Osea Kolinisau, has signed for Houston, who are coached by the former Ulster and Ireland prop Justin Fitzpatrick.
Stadium capacities for year one range from 3,000 to 5,000: Austin, Houston and others have plans to build but for now some improvisation is necessary. The Houston Sabercats will first play at the home of a minor-league baseball team, the Sugar Land Skeeters, where pre-season opponents will include Uruguay on 20 January, a warm-up for a World Cup play-off with Canada. Jeremy Turner, the Houston president, said pre-sales were “looking pretty good”.
The Seattle Seawolves will play at Starfire Stadium, a soccer ground, while the Glendale Raptors have Infinity Park, a stadium built for rugby. Torero Stadium in San Diego hosted PRO games and the USA’s World Cup qualifying win over Canada. Where the Utah Warriors (Salt Lake City) and NOLA Gold (New Orleans) will play remains, for now, uncertain.
Little in US rugby proceeds smoothly. MLR announced itself earlier this year with nine teams, Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis among them – San Diego was not. Those still set to start play in 2018 have made progress at varying speeds. Houston have rebranded, made signings and started to carve out a place in the media jungle. San Diego’s name will be the Legion, but not many more announcements have followed.
Dallas made headlines in June, when they announced the signing of former Bath, Toulon and England coach Mike Ford. Chief executive Phil Camm said this week Ford had been instrumental in the decision to delay entry for a year and was “fully onboard still”. The team is negotiating with city authorities regarding a stadium and exploring “an opportunity to work with some big sports guys in Dallas”, Camm said.