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Major League Rugby is still working the bugs out of its core business – selling a compelling professional 15s competition to America. A few markets are drawing significant crowds and seeing improved attendance. Some are struggling mightily to get any traction at all.
For now, and the near future, the league needs to affix some sort of tunnel vision toward attracting more fans and generating more revenue. Individual teams and the league office need that priority bulleted to the top of their respective to-do lists.
However, while the endeavor to professionalize 15s has hogged the headlines much of the last two years, as the league has been credited for the Eagles’ recent uptick in success, MLR hasn’t had the marquee all to itself. The ascension of the men’s 7s national team has taken a share of the spotlight, too. With two tournaments to play on the HSBC Sevens World Series, the Eagles sit in first place having clinched a top-four seed to the Tokyo Olympics, a feat that feels far-fetched in even the past tense.
As the national team heads into the business end of the Olympic cycle and MLR tries to solidify its future with financial stability, it’s time for some strategic planning. Eagles head coach Mike Friday, newly-minted club 7s commissioner Howard Kent and MLR commissioner Dean Howes need to get around a table and hammer out a mutually beneficial agreement that allows the two most exciting drivers of the commercial side of the game to work in concert to penetrate the American consciousness. And they need an experienced, entrenched member of the community like Kent involved to make sure they don’t miss a land mine.
Right now, there’s confusion about what players are available when for summer 7s duty. The MLR season will be pushed later into the summer next year. The knock-on effect for the club 7s scene is massive, and the club 7s system feeds directly into the Olympic program. So at the very least, a league-wide agreement on player availability is a good place to start.
Long-term, MLR is a threat to Friday’s program. Considering where we are in the Olympic cycle and with the MLR’s low salary cap, the competition for players isn’t extremely high, yet (Malon Al-Jiboori notwithstanding). But it will be, especially in 2021, when the Olympic countdown starts back at four years and the league’s salary cap is presumably higher.
Friday will then not only have to work to protect those he sees as part of the plan for Paris 2024 – think Williams, Pinkelman, Tomasin, Brown, etc. – he’ll have to compete for the attention of the next generation. Will the next crop of All-Americans choose the MLR track or that of the Olympics?
For MLR, concern over the depth of the domestic player pool is growing. As the league plans to expand to 14 teams, it needs more than 400 quality American or Canadian rugby players. That’s a stretch, and Friday wanting to have unfettered access to 20 of the best makes it an even tougher ask.
So a plan needs to be made.
It’s only a matter of time before someone launches a professional 7s venture. William Tatham, Jr.’s exclusive sanctioning agreement regarding professional 7s appears to be out of the way; a casualty of inaction. Someone is going to attempt it, and whoever does will be a direct competitor to MLR.
MLR should consider staking its claim in 7s as early as next summer in the form of a series. Not just so no one else can beat them to the punch, but because it makes sense.
Right now, the league has no formal player identification vehicle. Last summer, World Rugby footed the bill for a combine in Glendale that saw a bunch of teams sign South American talent. Teams also paid to scout the College All-American camp. But there is no central combine. There is no central draft. There is no transparent, formal free agency system.
A summer 7s circuit would provide valuable development and identification opportunities for potential future MLR professionals. Eligibility considerations would have to be made, but giving MLR teams touch points to college players before they had the opportunity to sign them would be beneficial for all involved. It’d be an ideal proving ground for crossovers, club standouts and the guys who sit on the fringe of MLR rosters and are starved of playing opportunities as it is.
Of course, this isn’t a problem solver for the MLR’s need to identify tight-five talent. Every solution doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all, though.
This is also going to make even more sense in the future. The MLR now has three rugby-specific stadiums; Glendale’s Infinity Park, New Orleans’ Gold Stadium, and Houston’s Aveva Stadium. All are owned, managed, programmed by or in some other way intimately aligned with the teams themselves. For the league to make it long-term, that number will have to grow.
Like with the MLS, the template by which MLR makes its decisions, MLR will be more sustainable when teams are able to own and monetize their own stadiums. Selling tickets, sponsorship, merchandise and broadcast rights to eight rugby games a year simply doesn’t make ends meet. Teams need the added, year-round revenue, which comes in the way of additional programming.
A 7s circuit stop is another date of the year the stadium is open, hot dogs are being sold, beer is being swilled and sponsors are getting to activate. It’s another opportunity to sell the brand, sell the game and interact with your customer base.
The benefit for the Olympic team is obvious. Now, Friday would finally get to see the best of the best from the college and club games mix it up with the fringe of the MLR in a concentrated circuit. He’s been able to carve out an annual season for the Falcons and create some academy positions in Chula Vista to try and deepen the player pool. Having a robust domestic competition that identifies and develops talent to feed into the Falcons, and eventually the Eagles, is exactly what the doctor ordered. Better yet, the MLR is paying for it.
So the teams win because they get another chance to make money, identify players, build their brands and fill their stadiums. The players love it because college kids are salivating for MLR opportunities and there are dozens of players in MLR cities across America caught between pro and club rugby who need more playing time. Mike Friday gets the new identification and development vehicle he desperately needs.
It makes so much sense the Gallagher Premiership has run a 7s circuit every summer since 2010. The NBA does a version of the same thing with its Summer League, and there are off-season leagues all over the world for baseball players to continue honing their craft. This kind of symbiotic relationship can be a windfall for everyone, but it isn’t possible if Friday and the MLR can’t come to an agreement on player availability.
In order for Friday to be able to continue to attract top talent, he’s going to need to be able to pay at least as much as MLR teams can. Again, right now, that’s not much of a problem. But it will be. One way he can keep up is to pay less people more. Instead of spreading out the current resources amongst 24 full timers, he can spread it amongst 16.
If Friday can rely on the MLR to earnestly develop 7s players for him, he doesn’t have to keep a second side in-house. Perhaps if guys like Marcus Tupuola, Anthony Welmers and Ben Broselle spent the fall with the 7s team in Chula Vista, spent the MLR season with respective clubs until they were called upon by Friday, and in the summer played in the MLR 7s series, that works for everyone.
Instead of Friday keeping those guys largely to himself year-round and struggling to find appropriate playing opportunities for them all unless someone gets injured, he and the MLR can share these players and their salaries, giving the players the best of both worlds and alleviating the cost of duplicating efforts
Player welfare is another concern. No one wants Tupuola playing three MLR 7s tournaments in the summer, three World Series tournaments in the fall and 16 MLR matches in the spring. The MLR 7s circuit isn’t for guys who are being regularly selected for the World Series or who are starting every week in the MLR. Perhaps maximum match limits need to be put in place.
Cost is also going to be a road block. If making money is part of the incentive for the MLR teams for doing this circuit, they need to be able to do just that. So they need to field teams affordably, revenue will have to be shared smartly as every team won’t get to host every year, and separate sponsorship will have to be sold.
Alain Hyardet doesn’t have to coach the Elite and Rob Hoadley the Legion, and teams don’t need to hire anyone new. Maybe Zack Text coaches the Legion’s 7s side and Andrew Suniula or Todd Clever Austin’s. Maybe Friday sprinkles his top players, now making a little higher salary, around the league as coaches. Wouldn’t Ben Pinkelman coaching the Glendale Raptors, Kevon Williams the Sabercats and Hughes the Free Jacks be cool?
Every MLR team has fringe guys in their city that need playing time. They’ll likely all have several players ask to be released to play club 7s for free this summer anyway. Finding players willing to play won’t be an issue. Maybe you have a standard per diem for players with prize money for bonuses. Maybe you provide housing and jobs and nothing else. Keep costs low, but give the players an experience above and beyond what they have now without pricing out talent.
It will have to be an intricate system that’s equal parts well-thought-out, to avoid any hiccups, and flexible, for when they inevitably arise. It’s going to take some creativity, but the MLR has plenty of smart people capable of devising such a partnership (looking at you Alex Magleby and Scott Lawrence).
Professional 7s is coming, and MLR has the choice to compete with it or capitalize on it. A war for players between the MLR and Olympic program is on the horizon, but it can be avoided. A threat could be turned into a win-win. But it’s going to take high-level collaboration for two of the biggest forces in the American game to stand shoulder-to-shoulder instead of nose-to-nose.