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Major League Rugby officially launched with a press release Thursday, announcing that it will get off the ground in 2018 with nine teams across the country – Glendale, Colo., Kansas City, Dallas, Houston, Austin, New Orleans, Seattle, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. News and rumor about the entity had slowly been trickling out over the last several months, but Thursday’s release was the first peep from the league itself.
Though there have been different entities who’ve used the name MLR, including an active website that essentially acts as a feed for international rugby news and a club competition that rivaled the Super League around the turn of the century, this new MLR is entirely different.
The league will be run out of Salt Lake City, and the current front office includes commissioner Dean Howes and deputy commissioner Nick Benson. Howes has an extensive background in professional sport, having formerly been a partner in SCP Worldwide, a managing partner of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and the MLS’ Real Salt Lake. He also oversaw the construction of Rio Tinto stadium, home of Real Salt Lake.
MLR is owned by its member teams, all of which own themselves. This is in stark contrast to the dormant PRO Rugby. The league itself and all of the teams were owned by Doug Schoninger. PRO is still the sole professional league sanctioned by USA Rugby, though the national governing body is expected to exercise an exit clause, which would see sanctioning end in the spring of 2018 amid what MLR plans to be its pilot season.
“We’re targeting spring. We would like to get our season in before the June window. It’s a little bit of a jigsaw puzzle,” said Benson. “If you look at the cities, you look at the weather and you look at the June test window, so there’s some logistical things we’re trying to figure out there – how many games can we fit in?”
The window of the season, a schedule and format are all among the things the league is ironing out. The list of founding teams, though, is something that should be relatively set at this point.
Most of them are directly tied to an existing club – the Glendale Raptors, Kansas City Blues, Griffins Rugby (Dallas area), Austin Huns, New Orleans RFC, Seattle Saracens and Rugby Utah are all currently competing teams. All of them are traditional clubs, except Rugby Utah, which was launched as a national development academy and operates more like the state’s governing body.
The Houston Strikers are reviving the name of an old club, though the team hasn’t been active for many years. Former Striker club members are at the core of that team’s ownership group. The Minneapolis team is a new addition, at least a newly brought to light one. Benson says its ownership group has deep ties to the Minneapolis rugby community across many levels.
Zeroing in on the founding teams has been at the forefront of MLR’s efforts, and that process has seen some other rumored cities and teams fall off. Those announced have made it through a round of vetting.
“We didn’t go and audit people’s bank accounts, but we do have some pretty hefty financial contributions that each team is going to have to make to the league itself, first of all. You have to remember we’re operating this first and foremost as a business. We have to think of it that way if we’re going to succeed,” he said.
“We’re also laying our certain expectations in terms of what teams do in their local markets. That’s minimum standards in terms of the quality of the facility that you’re playing in, what you do in terms of your marketing, what you do in terms of your player welfare.
“I can tell you a lot of the teams that we talked to said we’d love to be a part of this but we’re not quite ready. That’s fine. Some teams have looked at it and said I don’t know if we want to do that, we want to be amateur, and that’s fine, too. It’s really been about finding the right fit. It’s not a value judgment.”
Some teams are further along than others in terms of taking shape. Glendale and Austin both have a number of players and coaches under contract, and they’ve been playing this spring, using it as a dress rehearsal of sorts. Guys like Hanco Germishuys, Michael Reid and Peter Malcolm are on the Huns’ payroll, and Glendale is paying players like Shaun Davies, John Quill and Will Magie.
The Houston Strikers, though they’re not playing yet, have hired Justin Fitzpatrick (formerly the scrum coach for USA and the head man for the Seattle Saracens) to lead their team, and they’ve inked Eagle No. 8 Matt Trouville to contribute on the field and run the team’s youth sector. Others, like Rugby Utah and New Orleans, have begun offering contracts. Others haven’t quite gotten to that point, yet.
Details on the size and makeup of contracts haven’t been announced, but expect for player pay to be in the same neighborhood as it was in PRO’s inaugural year. It is also anticipated that a salary cap will be in play, and there’s even been talk of a draft.
“Obviously, you have teams that are more established and have a bit of a more robust roster. There are teams who are out there being a bit more aggressive, and there are teams who are maybe not at that point yet,” added Benson.
“We’re establishing systems internally to help with that and to distribute the talent that kind of helps the teams that are a little bit newer or who have maybe a bit more of a leap in their technical capacity on field to close that gap.”