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Starting with a phone call in late 2017 about a possible east coast rivalry for Major League Rugby, the adventure that is professional rugby in the District of Columbia is alive and building momentum. Ever since the official announcement less than a month ago, founders Chris Dunlavey and Paul Sheehy have been working tirelessly to set up the MLR expansion team in nation’s capital.
With an expected debut in 2020 and a desire to capitalize on the second-largest rugby market in the country, Dunlavey and Sheehy acquired the exclusive rights to a DC MLR team in early May. Since then, these two prominent businessmen have been kicking the tires in the area to find support, investors, a venue, and mold a solid business plan in the process.
Chris Dunlavey, the president and co-founder of Brailsford & Dunlavey, a U.S. top-50 program management firm, has been part of the DC rugby community since the 1980s while playing for the Washington Irish. In the business arena, his firm has specialized in project management of sports venues ranging from MLB to NFL stadium projects down to minor league baseball and collegiate facilities for the last 25 years.
During that time, Dunlavey’s firm was in charge of financial feasibility assessments that has given him an understanding of the economic aspects of a professional sports team. The knowledge of the needs of a successful sports business combined with his deep ties to local venue partnerships, Dunlavey is ideally situated to bring professional rugby to the District.
The second part of the ownership group is former Eagle Paul Sheehy, the owner and director of Used Operations for Sheehy Auto Stores. His family auto business has been in the area for 50 years, and Sheehy has been heavily involved in the DC youth, high school, and collegiate rugby scene for the last 30. Additionally, he has sponsored rugby at all levels for the past 10 years.
Sheehy has wanted to bring professional rugby to DC for a long time. He flirted with the idea of a PRO14 team in 2016 and received an education on professional rugby during that time. The main thing he learned from the experience and research was to focus on the business operations, shore up the partnerships, and have a great venue, and then build the rugby operations from that framework.
The idea for a DC MLR club began with phone calls from James Kennedy, the founder of Rugby United New York.
“Kennedy contacted me in late December when he was becoming fully committed to entering the league as the sole member east of the Mississippi,” Dunlavey recalled of his initial contact. “He decided for his business plan that he needed some regional rivals. James sent me an email and asked if we would look into stirring something up here in DC.”
“I was tracking the MLR, and when the Wales-South Africa test match was announced, Chris and I actually met at an event at the South African embassy,” said Sheehy.
“James Kennedy had previously called me up and said ‘are you still interested? If so you need to talk to Chris.’ We got together, talked about it, watched a little bit of MLR, and that’s how we arrived at this moment.”
After the discussions with Kennedy and meeting together, Dunlavey and Sheehy spoke with the MLR directly at the beginning of the year, and the league was open to sharing information, how it was structured, and what its business plan consisted of.
“We were excited at the prospect of a DC team,” said MLR deputy commissioner Nic Benson. “The DC region has all the building blocks for a successful team, a great media market, a vibrant and diverse rugby community, which includes dozens of men's and women's rugby clubs as well as robust collegiate, high school and youth programs, and a large international community.”
The DC duo spent January to March getting a grasp of the MLR’s business plan to size up what level of investment was necessary to launch a team. After reaching that fundamental threshold to fund the potential club, they approached the league.
“In that discussion, we had a talk at one point with the league in March where they said, ‘here is the number that we think you guys are going to need to enter for,’” Dunlavey said. “We actually said ‘no, we aren’t going to enter at that number’. They said, ‘very well, will you develop a proposal with what you are able to do.’ So we entered into a negotiating period with them. We are currently under an exclusive right to negotiate entry with them and we have rights to this market. At the end of which, we are going to propose terms to enter the league on a valuation that we determine.”
The MLR wants a prosperous collaboration with the DC group as well as any other ownership groups going forward.
“We want groups that understand the MLR vision, what it takes to be successful in their region, and who are ready to do the legwork to dig deep into their markets from the grassroots all the way up,” Benson said.
“We know that a team in the Mid-Atlantic has the potential to be a home run. Chris and Paul are putting a great team in place and they understand the market, the rugby community, and what it takes to be successful.”
Since the initiation of the rights agreement on May 2nd, the DC team has been running the traps on all aspects of running the business. “We are doing some market testing, talking to potential corporate partners, testing season ticket buyer demand, initiated communications with all the various clubs and organizations in the area that we are going to want to partner with to build a rugby community together, and in discussion with other potential investors that may want to join Paul and I in this effort. Basically, between now and the end of July, we are going to figure out what are the pieces we are going to be put in place and make sure we have a confidence level to see that things are really going to work.”
Aiming for 2020
So why not start play in 2019? Dunlavey explained, “We want to make sure we have our business model down first and that is shored up before we start focusing the attention we need to on the rugby operation. We are just not that confident we can do that well enough to put the quality product on the pitch that we want to by next February.
“We do think that if we don’t enter the competition until 2020, we will be building a team and playing some exhibition games just like New York did this last year. Doing everything necessary to first get your coach in place, go through your player recruitment, having a real preseason to get a team ready and play, we are a little concerned about our timeline to do that between now and the spring of 2019.”
“The last thing we want to do is rush a product that is not ready,” Sheehy echoed. “To play in 2019, we would need to be starting right now. We would have to have this on dual tracks and keeping the eye on the ball where we want to get the investors, the venue, then roll into rugby operations. It’s doable, but a lot of things would have to fall into place pretty quickly.”
The first checkmark for ownership group is a place to play with two requirements, inside the DC beltway and accessible via the Metro. Dunlavey is spearheading the effort using all his contacts to find a venue that best suits the team’s goals. While no decisions have been made, negotiations are underway.
“It is fair to say that we are having or had conversations with everybody you could think of and more, including local colleges, the DC United, and others,” Dunlavey stated. “Audi Field is a larger scale than we are probably going to want to set our sights on at least initially. A 20,000 seat facility, even though it’s scalable down, the MLR generally is drawing at most crowds in the 5,000-7,000 range.
“We are looking at a modest scale initially and turning on the lights at a building like Audi Field can cost a lot of money per game and is above the economic model we want to start with. We are looking at a smaller scale but we are looking both with the potential of a newly developed rugby specific facility as well as partnering with existing facilities in the market. Can’t go into depth with any of them because we are in active discussions.”
The Rugby Operation
Dunlavey and Sheehy want to get the business side established before even thinking about rugby. It’s way too early to start playing fantasy rugby manager, and they will be hiring a general manager to pick the players when the time is right. A short list of head coaching options has been considered, but no decisions have been made.
The DC group wants to field the best team possible, but it is at a disadvantage being an expansion team.
“Even though the MLR just got started, we’re going to be an expansion team which means an awful lot of the top player pool in this country and already playing in the MLR, including guys from this area,” Dunlavey said.
“On the one hand, we feel like we are going to be starting behind the curve a little bit to recruit. On the other hand, it demonstrates what a great rugby region we have that there are those guys out there,” he added. “We are going to want to bring those DC kids home and capitalize on those others that are in the market but not in MLR yet.”
DC will also attempt to tap into the well of athletes who have never played rugby before.
“We had a great discussion with Tiger Rugby the other day and they brought Perry Baker, which was pretty impressive,” Sheehy said. “That is the type of talent that is available. Tiger converted him into a rugby player and that is what we want to do. First, let’s make people aware of this league and second, have a combine for whether you play rugby or not and look for these converts. Perry Baker was converted and now is rugby’s reigning World Rugby 7s Player of the Year. That’s the model.
“There are nine million people that live in the DC metropolitan area when you add in Baltimore and there are some incredible athletes. They are not all getting NFL contracts, so where are they going? They are not playing NBA, where are these kids going and why can’t rugby be an option for them?
“The Washington Catholic Athletic Conference produces phenomenal athletes and a lot of them play rugby right here at Gonzaga, DeMatha, and St. John’s. We think we can get crossover athletes, but also get all the local club teams in the area to make sure they are a part of this. It is critical that the DC market comes together and we saw that over the weekend at the Wales-South Africa game.
“It’s up to us to sell the rugby community that they are a part of this and that is certainly what will make us a success. Everybody has a role to play and we are going to ask for everyone to participate. We want everyone to have a hand in this. It’s going to be a large endeavor but I thought the local organizing committee put together for the Wales-South Africa game is a small example of how well it can work.”
The Wales-South Africa Effect
The Wales–South Africa international match at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC on June 2nd was great timing for the club. DC MLR was one of the sponsors of the event and advertised inside the stadium. The group was a part of the recognition of the Gonzaga High School championship team before the game and had the squad help with a DC MLR t-shirt toss to the crowd.
Outside at the tailgate fan fest, DC MLR had a tent where Dunlavey and Sheehy were meeting fans, sharing information, and interacting with the crowd. They were also taking season ticket deposits and suggestions for the “Name the Team” contest.
With no team name, no venue, no coach, and no players, DC MLR have secured over 250 season ticket pre-orders and that number is climbing. In addition to the ticket excitement, Dunlavey and Sheehy have seen a tremendous amount of emails and phone calls since the event of people wanting to help.
“It was our first big brand-building effort,” Dunlavey said. “I think it was effective and particularly by the time we were handing out the postcards at the end of the game, people were eager to learn more about it and we certainly got to thousands of people.”
Since the press release and the Wales-South Africa game, the interest in professional rugby in DC is surging.
“It’s definitely feeling like we are building momentum. Paul said from the outset that our timing was very lucky in that we were able to go public with our announcement within thirty days of the Wales-South Africa game which drew over 20,000 rabid rugby fans from up and down the Mid-Atlantic, but mostly our market,” said Dunlavey.
“The fact that the CRCs were being held the same day within 120 miles of our market, there were 45,000 people paying to see rugby in our market area on Saturday. We are definitely feeling a building of momentum and excitement about what we are doing and we have only scratched the surface of our grassroots outreach to the club network and community.
“We learned a stat in this process that they are more than 2,000 executives both in the public and private sector in the greater DC market that are either current or former rugby players. There is a lot of potential corporate partnership power for us in this market.
“We are literally in the process now of engaging with the different kinds of partners we need to be involved. We are talking and meeting with potential investors, corporate partners, engaging fans and making season ticket deposits, and reaching out and connecting with other MLR owners.”
Lastly, one of the biggest things the DC MLR group has learned in this entire process is the unbridled passion that exists in the rugby community.
“I’m sure you can go around the United States and ask about it but there are just really passionate people about the sport of rugby,” Sheehy concluded. “There are a lot of fans in the DC area and if we can get them all focused, it’s going to work out really well.”