You are here

MLS Team

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.

Comments

A few more options for pro rugby in the US have been discussed: 1) NRFL is looking to create a team of crossover athletes to play a Premiership team in 2015 and then launch a 15s league in 2016. They will play in large NFL stadiums because they feel that playing in MLS stadiums is not thinking big enough. They are claiming six figure salaries will be available to those who attend their combines. 2. USA Rugby is rumored to be in discussions with Premiership to form a development league in the US. Such a league would consist of domestic players and Premiership academy players. None of the of the groups backing any of formats described above have raised the tens of millions required to launch a league. Some of the groups have track records in elite rugby and while others produce only tweets and press releases.
+1
-25
-1
For the 7s league there are two 4 team formats being proposed. Note that at least 22 minutes are required for each game plus pre-game, intra-game, and post-game commentary. 1) 4 Team Pool: 4 teams play pool matches as they do in Premiership 7s. For each team to play one another, this would require 6 games and over 2 hours of broadcast. Each team plays three games. Teams are mixed and matched each week to maximize TV coverage. 2) 4 Team Bracket: 4 Teams play two semi-finals, a consolation final, and a final. 4 games can be squeezed into a broadcast of 90 minutes only if there is a very short break between the second semi-final and the consolation final. Each team play two games. Teams are mixed and matched each week to maximize TV coverage. Grand Prix Rugby originally proposed an 8 to 16 team format but nobody else thinks that format makes fiscal sense for a league season. An 8 team league playing the weekly 4 team format could potentially play a multi-day 8 team events pre-season, mid-season and/or post season. Pre-season event is similar to baseball's spring training. Mid-season event would be like the All-star break in baseball and basketball. Post-season event would be like football's pro-bowl. Multi-Day Tournament 7s could be a series that runs parallel to the 4 team format with point accumulating in pre-season, mid-season, and post season events.
+1
-39
-1
It really doesn't matter what the format is, the key is to get sports fans to care about the sport. The pattern for this already exists and needs to be picked up by rugby. The UFC took a sport that was on the fringe and legitimized it in the eyes of many. To do this, they partnered with SPIKE TV to create programing that could showcase the sport itself and the human element. 'The Ultimate Fighter' was a master stroke and could easily be patterned to create human interest in rugby players. The NFL has its 'Hard Knocks' program, The Pac-12 Network has 'The Drive'...all do the same thing: get people talking about the sport. Rugby needs to be sold to sports fans like any product, but it needs to be in the form of a media on slot. We can't continue to ask for a professional league, but half-ass our coverage of the sport.
+1
-19
-1
(The comment block lists my name as, "Rugby Magazine," but this is Doug Porter posting) As interested as I am in seeing professional rugby develop in the states, I feel like the comparisons to MLS (which I often see) tend to gloss over huge differences in soccer player / potential fan base. To a large extent, golfers watch golf. Tennis players watch tennis. Soccer players watch soccer. Rugby players watch rugby. (American football is deeply embedded enough in our culture to have gotten past that, I think) When MLS started in the early '90's, we had 30 years of spectators built up. That is, since the '60's, it seems like every kid in the USA played soccer at one point or another. That's a LOT of potential spectators. To a reasonable (if crude) approximation, rugby has zero potential spectators. I love that youth rugby is really picking up, but for all practical purposes it's available to 0% of the american public. I think we're at LEAST a generation away from having enough potential fans to make even a basic 15's league financially viable. Putting rugby games in NFL stadiums seems beyond absurd. I think a rugby competition that consistently drew 2,000 spectators would have to be considered HUGELY successful (and would take a lot of marketing savvy to make happen). And, honestly, if a league's organizers were realistic about something like that, I'd be thrilled to see it. It would effectively be a semi-pro league. It would, if marketed well, certainly help drive the growth of rugby. As it is, I think the only hope for successful, near term professionalism would be a massive boost to Sevens from the Olympics kicking off a Sevens competition. That, at least, is very easy to get into. You don't have to know much about rugby to enjoy watching sevens. 15's on the other hand (which I prefer to sevens), can be painfully torturous to watch at times.
+1
+1
-1
UFC has done great job a training their players in social media and developing sponsorships for their athletes. UFC also keeps their labor costs very low with most fighters only making a few thousand dollars a fight from UFC. Their labor costs for each of their monthly events is around $1 million while they are pulling in tens of millions of revenue. In looking at 7s vs 15s is is worth looking at the elite layer base required. 15s will require many props and fly-halfs who are in short supply in the US. A 15s league would likely require foreign players. A 7s comp could be created using only domestic players. Coaches will likely be sourced domestically and internationally. In addition to a playing roster, teams should expect an injury rate of at least 30% over the course of a season. Pro teams may also need a practice squad which could come from local D1 clubs. Only 2% of college football players are drafted by the NFL. So to create 100 elite players and the same level of selectivity a pool of 5000 players is required. Thousands of players need to be developed to support the hundreds needed for the pros. It is worth considering what will happen to the amateur clubs if pro team take the top players. Will D1 clubs become part of a minor league system? How will clubs be compensated for their player development and support costs? 7s Roster 12 Reserves 4 Coaches 3 Total 19 8 Teams Players 128 8 Teams Coaches 24 Super 7s Roster 21 Reserves 6 Coaches 4 Total 31 8 Teams Players 216 8 Teams Coaches 32 15s Roster 23 Reserves 7 Coaches 4 Total 34 8 Teams Players 240 8 Teams Coaches 32 Front Row Players: 30+ Fly Halfs: 12+
+1
+5
-1
I just don't see professional rugby ever taking off here in the USA. The major sports media really don't give rugby much attention, even with the recent international test between America and New Zealand at Chicago's Soldier Field, broadcast against Saturday afternoon college football. I would like to check out the Nielsen Ratings for that game. Actually, if rugby got its due attention from the media, football coaches might get very concerned, because anyone who has played both sports could realize that rugby allows anyone on the field to run with the ball. American football doesn't have to worry about soccer, as it has established its place, but let's just say if it isn't on the TV, it didn't happen, and rugby is rarely on the TV, unless one subscribes to special cable networks, or get certain stations on Dish. Many Americans still don't know what rugby is, or have ever seen a game. I'll remind everyone that in 2013 BBC America telecast the Six Nations. They didn't last year, and I doubt they will this year! Lastly, it is great that there is so much youth rugby going on nowadays. Still, I know of one boy who was in sixth grade last year, who played on a youth rugby side based in a town some ten miles away. He stopped going to practice and games once Little League started up in late winter (I'm in California, where rugby is basically a late fall to early spring sport). La Crosse has also become the latest in alternative sports in which youngsters have gravitated. Going back some fifteen years or so, rugby was offered a place amongst Central Coast Section high school sports. Somehow La Crosse leap-frogged rugby and got that place. There were few high schools with sports teams, more multiple school clubs than anything else, and the Northern California Rugby Union didn't really want to give up control of rugby to a scholastic sports organization. When things like that happen, rugby takes a back seat to the other sports.
+1
-94
-1
I made a mistake in one of the last sentences in my post, regarding high school rugby clubs or teams. I meant to type that at the time, some fifteen years or so, and it's still the situation today for the most part, few high schools have a rugby team of players only from that school. Most of the high school competition is still largely clubs with a makeup of players from a few surrounding schools, in California. So having high school rugby as a school sport sanctioned by the CCS in Northern and Central California would have been hard to cobble together. As it is, I understand that there's two levels of competition: single school clubs (like Jesuit High of Sacramento) and multiple school clubs.
+1
+11
-1
How does the NRFL think it can come remotely close to filling an NFL stadium? That is either stupidity or arrogance or a combination of both - a dangerous mix for sure. Most top class rugby matches in the UK are seen by 20 K or fewer - anyone here that gets Bein and has watched the Avia or Pro 12 Competitions has seen many a half empty (small) stadium. To think that rugby could do better in this country is pure fantasy. With "crossover" athletes no less. Just to note that the AB game in Chicago was filled by a combination of NZ tourists and ex pats (estimated at about 10 K) as well as the US rugby community coming together for a giant celebration of the game. It was a one off success thanks to a ton of hard work and marketing. I don't think that the proposed Australia game will be able to come close to filling Soldiers Field. How are a bunch of no name athletes with dubious rugby credentials going to capture anyones attention? I know there is a proposed game next August but there was also one last year. I think the most likely scenario sets up a professional league on the West Coast consisting of top Canadian and American talent along with younger A team or upcoming academy talent. Perhaps half a dozen teams to start supported by a combination of MLS owners and Avia / Pro 12 teams. A 10 game season plus play offs would make sense - each team playing each other on a home / away basis and the top four going into a knock out playoff competition. Player compensation of perhaps 25 - 30 k a year to start. Add coaches etc and you can keep payroll to around 1 mill. Sell TV rights to Bein or Universal help cover those costs. Partnering with the MLS makes a lot of sense as they have experience starting a league and have sustained that league. Say what you will but the MLS IS taken seriously as a legit professional sport in the cities where the teams are based. Here in Boston there is talk of a soccer specific stadium built by the Krafts. There are serious people associated with the MLS - if they are interested (which appears to be the case for some franchises) then it has to be considered. The shiny new stadiums that the MLS are building demand occupancy and rugby can serve that role. Add to a pro league a handful of Eagle matches each year and rugby has something to offer the stadium owners. Larry - the ratings for the AB game were something like a .6 which translated into a million viewers domestically. I believe there was similar viewership in NZ. I am lifting this from what was published on another rugby website. Not so bad for a game that was not really advertised and was going up against college football. Bein had the 6 Nations last year and I am certainly hopeful they will have it this year. I think a professional league is very realistic but is probably a good 5 years off. In the meantime continue to invest in youth, HS and collegiate rugby. The grassroots always have to be nurtured.
+1
+41
-1
It is worth taking a look at the groups promoting pro rugby in the US. Some groups have relevant experience. Most do not. None of them have the ten of millions required to launch a league. Any serious investor will demand a serious management team with a real track record. ---USA Rugby--- Rugby Event Management: Yes; Rugby TV Rights Management: Yes; Elite Rugby Team Management: Yes; Elite Rugby Player Recruitment: Yes; Elite Rugby Player Development: Yes; ---United World Sports (USA7s, CRC)--- Rugby Event Management: Yes; Rugby TV Rights Management: Yes; Elite Rugby Team Management: No; Elite Rugby Player Recruitment: No; Elite Rugby Player Development: No; ---NRFL--- Rugby Event Management: No; Rugby TV Rights Management: No; Elite Rugby Team Management: No; Elite Rugby Player Recruitment: Yes; Elite Rugby Player Development: No; ---American Rugby 7s--- Rugby Event Management: No; Rugby TV Rights Management: No; Elite Rugby Team Management: No; Elite Rugby Player Recruitment: No; Elite Rugby Player Development: No; ---Grand Prix Rugby--- Rugby Event Management: No; Rugby TV Rights Management: No; Elite Rugby Team Management: No; Elite Rugby Player Recruitment: No; Elite Rugby Player Development: No;
+1
-5
-1
I would say it is a dubious claim at best that NRFL has genuine elite player recruitment. They sent a couple guys to Bristol and Thretton Palamo I think may have gone to their combine but he already had been capped and had a stint in France so he was not an unknown entity at all ...
+1
+10
-1
I am giving come Elite Player Recruitment credit to NRFL for the one combine they ran and for promoting another one in a few weeks. USA Rugby is the only other group running combines/tryouts. AR7s and Grand Prix have no qualifications. The goal here is to provide a framework to evaluate the various professional proposals and formats. So far it does not look promising and that explains why no investors have stepped forward.
+1
+19
-1
I have been associated with US Rugby since 1970. Even back then we were projecting how the USA would be a world beater as soon as some of its better athletes took up the game. Some of this prophecy seems to be coming true in 7s with some speedsters and the USA 7s team applying better rucking techniques. However, let's get real. Rugby is still very much of an undergrowth sport in this country. For every youth playing rugby there are at least 100 - 200 who are playing soccer or basketball. Even lacrosse kicks our butt in player numbers. If a pro league is to be started it would need to be funded by a benefactor willing to lose gazzillions. Pro rugby cannot be sustainable through TV or gate money. recruits. The one observation I have had is that the "fix" for USA Rugby has always been from the top down. We had a semi pro league a few years ago and most matches would not attract ore than 100 or so spectators. Even mature clubs struggle to get new players as they do not focus on growing youth rugby to mine recruits from. While there are many more kids playing soccer than rugby, it too still does not have enough fan following to rival football, even though there are many more kids playing soccer than football. Rugby needs publicity and marketing and a focus at the youth level. USA Rugby's Rookie Rugby program has made some inroads in introducing touch rugby in schools for PE. It is still debatable as to how successful this has been in terms of attracting players to actually take up the sport. Other than this there is no model to follow or tools for starting , growing and sustaining youth rugby teams. It is often a dad with a son who starts a team with son's friends, then the team moves up in age, the son eventually graduates and exhausted dad goes off to do something else.
+1
-44
-1
Nick, just one comment - I have been a rugger since 1978, and wile I have to agree with much of your comments, I must say that the youth rugby in the US has been almost exclusively a bottom-up proposition. I attended the first USA Rugby gathering on youth Rugby back in 2005 (IIRC) and it was mostly an effort (IMHO) by USA Rugby to corral the work from a bunch of grassroots' efforts in Illinois, Colorado, SoCal and even the Carolinas. While I believe that the crowd at USA Rugby have their hearts in the right place, Rugby in the US is STILL a local, grassroots sport, with some admirable effort at the top. We will need both in the future, and the biggest challenge is figuring out how to fill in the gap between the expertise at the top and the enthusiasm and local organizational skills at the bottom.
+1
-16
-1
It would be great if somebody rationalized how pro rugby is presented on TV in the US. Top quality content is being created in Europe and the Southern hempshpere yet the distribution of this product into the US, the largest media market in the world, is very poor. The foreign leagues claim to want access to the lucrative US market but they do not seem to be aware of how bad their product looks to the US viewer. It is much cheaper (and less risky to investors) to re-use existing content than to create an entire domestic US professional league from nothing. Integrated TV, second screen and social media coverage of international rugby from Premiership, Pro12, Top14, and Super XV would lay the groundwork for the launch of a domestic US pro league.
+1
-1
-1
MLS isn’t the business model that rugby needs to look to. Where we could make serious strides is by emulating lacrosse. They’re another “fringe” sport that’s made serious strides in the last decade. They’ve had a professional league since 2001, their players make 10-25k a year and they average 6k fans per match. Here in Denver they’re playing next to Mile High Stadium with a huge banner up next to the Bronco’s logo.
+1
-1
-1
The point of working with the MLS is because of a couple of factors , not the least of which is that some MLS owners are indicating an interest in rugby - if they are interested and have the money to invest then it would be foolish not to listen. Additionally, they have the facilities that suit rugby to a T. Shoehorning rugby fields onto football fields has always been problematic and is a detriment to the game. I could easily see a professional league springing up out West in the following cities: San Francisco (or San Jose), Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Vancouver and perhaps Portland. I don't think the East Coast is ready for a professional competition at all. If it is true that Premiership teams are also interested in getting involved then all the better. Saracens are already involved in Seattle and Northampton is looking to partner with SFGG. I would not follow the MLL model because rugby has it's own needs and it's own strengths and weaknesses. What rugby has and MLL does not is an international flavor. IF (and that is obviously a big if) Premiership teams were involved then you could have upcoming players from the UK playing here - adding to the quality of the competition. It will definitely be interesting to see how this all plays out over time.
+1
-30
-1
I agree 6k would be a realistic goal for the early years of US pro rugby. The lower bowls of MLS stadiums are around 10K so 6k would not look too bad if end zones were covered with advertising tarps. What rugby has that soccer has and lax doesn't have is high quality international competitions available on TV, a World Cup, and the Olympics. US pro rugby league organizers need to get involved in all aspects of the rugby's presentation on TV and the internet if they want to grow the market. It is important to note the USA Rugby recently formed a for-profit entity that is looking at media rights and a pro-league.
+1
+13
-1
Looking at rugby management experience, the Super 7s video at the link below highlights United World Sports' capability to manage elite rugby events and TV production. Regardless of format, any serous pro rugby group will need this capability whether they build it on their own or partner with groups who can deliver the capability. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3WgWHLwT9Q#t=50
+1
+26
-1
Pro rugby in the US is a pipe dream. I don't think it has a snowball's chance of happening in my lifetime. There is no plan out there that makes any economic sense and I have seen most of them. To be honest, more than half of the English Premier clubs are on very shaky financial ground. It's the old saw: how do you make a small fortune? Take a large fortune and buy a professional rugby franchise. Instead of chasing the professional pipe dream, we should be looking to improve the elite domestic competition. USA Rugby has completely abrogated its responsibility to manage and promote top-level competition in the US. We now have the PRP and the ARP, both of which get very little if any support from USA Rugby. The distrust between the top clubs and USA Rugby is mutual, mutually detrimental, and of long standing. The onus of improving that situation lies squarely with USA Rugby as the governing body. However, they seem as though they couldn't care less. The top clubs support the vast majority domestic Eagles, both logistically and financially. In spite of that, there is little if any dialogue between USA Rugby and those clubs. Instead of finding ways to improve that support structure, USA Rugby actually works to damage it, whether unwittingly or not. Fixing the top domestic competition should be our focus, not debating an extremely low probability endeavor like the development of a professional league.
+1
+21
-1
While I agree with you around USA Rugby's ineptitude, I would say that we are really not that far away from professional rugby. You state that ARP and PRP are worth promoting, but are these not 'semi-pro' teams? Could (do) they charge for attendance at their fields to offset operational costs? Is that not the basis of a professional sport? College sports make billions of dollars and the athletes are not paid. Until such time as to have rugby making some money, athletes might not get paid as professional athletes, but they could get their accommodations, travel, health insurance, etc. paid for by the clubs via box office receipts.
+1
+20
-1
I agree revenue is needed for PRP/ARP from ticket sales and sponsors to cover training and competition expenses. There are many expenses to cover before any money is paid to players. If the top clubs in the US could generate revenue to create a high performance environment similar to NCAA D1 Football programs, the quality of the US elite talent pool would improve.
+1
-49
-1
USA Rugby does not have financial resources and will not be helpful in generating revenue to pay for player development in the US. Expecting USA Rugby to change is not a good plan. Nothing is keeping PRP and ARP from growing their fan base. ARP/PRP could bring more money into rugby but there does not appear to be much investment being made in marketing and developing a media presence. A professionally managed elite league could combine the assets of ARP and PRP but there needs to be a viable marketing and revenue plan to attract investor capital and sponsorship fees. The current PRP/ARP model depends on donations and has little commercial appeal to sponsors and investors. The current PRPR/ARP model is not sustainable if donors loss interest.
+1
-8
-1
I think the old adage of those that say it can't be done should get out of the way of those that are doing it is appropriate. I don't think that there is going to be a professional league in the next several years but there is no reason to think that with the right people in place it is an impossibility.
+1
-10
-1
Most of the people are already available in the US to be players, coaches and administrators in a pro league. The costs of running teams and the associated training and travel costs are well understood. Event management costs are well understood. What nobody has come up with a marketing plan that clarifies how tickets sales and TV ratings will be developed for a US pro rugby league . What is the appropriate ticket price? How much money must be invested up front to generate ticket sales? How much money must be invested in TV advertising to grow the TV market? Most of the current plans talk about macro trends like the recent Eagles matches, the Olympics and RWC but spend very little time explaining the operational details of getting butts in seat and eyes on screens. Anyone can model ticket sales of tens of thousands per game and millions of TV viewers based on unrealistic and untested assumptions. Rational execution plans that will create attractive risk-adjusted ROI do not yet exist. Another key issue is what happens to the exiting clubs if the pro league takes all the top talent? Will PRP/ARP/D1 clubs be willing become part of a minor league system? How should clubs be compensated for developing talent?
+1
+88
-1
Of any of the competition currently running the PRP is probably best placed to assume a minor league structure for any future Pro venture. Anyone looking to establish a Pro league should look at the NRC in Australia for guidance. It was established on a shoestring budget. The average investment per team was $300,000 a season. Its a competition with remarkably similar challenges in terms of expenses .i.e. travel etc. What it lacks is a unified online presence in the form of streaming. There would be differences. Players would likely be remunerated. But taking into account those factors its reasonable to expect that someone could feasibly run a team for $1,000,000 a season. In terms of recouping those costs. Ticketing is a key. It would be interesting to find out how much the average hire cost for a MLS stadium is. Considering the Denver BaaBaas have played out of Dick Sporting Goods Park. It cannot to too restrictive. The key would be to engage the local rugby community and offer fan passes etc. Something along the lines of register for a fan pass and receive 25% the price off admission. If you bring a new fan you get 50% both prices of admission. Kids under 15 are $5 each. If you set it at say $20 per ticket you are offering good value. The key to growing any league would be a broadcast levy. A amount of money set aside by each franchise to film and produce web streams close to TV quality similar to that of the Raptors. Choose a game of the week and give it free to a broadcaster to insert their ads alongside yours.
+1
-7
-1