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The past year witnessed much chatter about possibly starting a USA professional league in fifteens or sevens in 2015 or 2016. We have heard these pronouncements before, and a cursory examination of past Rugby Magazines, reveals a familiar frequency of similar earnest pronouncements.
All concur that the only realistic path forward for the improvement of our domestic rugby players is the creation of a professional system of teams, leagues, playoffs, and a season ending championship "bowl" game. Naturally, these scenarios come with television packages that succeed in introducing either fifteens or sevens to the American viewership.
History of Major League Soccer
This new league began in 1993 with every expectation that the time was at hand for the "beautiful game," the most played and watched sport on the planet, to succeed in the unexplored professional arena of the USA. Who had not seen the millions of enthusiastic youth playing AYSO soccer weekly in every hamlet in the country? Who had not calculated the millions of citizens originally from Central and South America or Europe for whom football was the favored sport?
In the first five-years, MLS lost $250 million and that increased to $350 million by 2004. Admittedly, mistakes and errors of judgment hampered the roll out, the most striking was playing games in giant (and empty) football stadiums.
The tide turned somewhat when MLS teams built 20,000 plus stadiums dedicated to soccer. But today, some 21-years after its optimistic start, MLS remains a minor viewed league in attendance, revenue, and public awareness.
Yet, beyond the financial profit and loss implications, the twenty-team league has succeeded in the development of domestic soccer, offering players the opportunity to play professionally on American soil. The decent USA showing in the past Football World Cup stems in part from the MLS operation.
Rugby Fifteens, Sevens, or Super Sevens?
At present, some of the future possibilities discussed for professional rugby are:
- Partnership with the English Aviva Premiership. This would bring over top English sides to play in American cities. The contest or contests would demonstrate rugby's skills and talent;
- A XV league - Modeled after MLS with franchises, playing games in MLS stadiums and television coverage;
- A 7s league - Similar to XVs but has to solve the problem of 14-minute games. Perhaps, four games among four teams to fill up a 90-minute broadcast; and,
- Super Sevens - The revolutionary idea of transforming sevens into four quarters (like basketball), first seen as an exhibition game at the 2014 CRC.
Limelight for Rugby - Window of Opportunity
The timing for a professional rugby league has never been more topical with the nine-months run up of publicity to the 2015 September-October Rugby World Cup, followed by the lead in the year after to the Rio Olympics. Rugby will be center stage for the next twenty-months until the start of August's 2016 Olympic games.
No one knows which of the possible formulations will be attempted. The only certainty is that money - and lots and lots of it - will be required to launch professional rugby in the United States. Good luck to any who try.