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Major League Rugby’s second season comes to a close Sunday, when the San Diego Legion play host to the defending champion Seattle Seawolves in the grand final. The sophomore campaign had its ups and downs but appears to be ending on a resoundingly positive note.
Robust crowds took in exciting semifinals in Seattle and San Diego. Those at Torero Stadium were treated to an instant classic, as Joe Pietersen’s touchline conversion gave the Legion the two-point victory in the 80th minute.
In Seattle, the Seawolves jumped out to an early 20-0 lead, but the Arrows made it interesting in the middle third of the game and Seattle’s Samu Manoa and Apisai Naikatani put in enough thumping hits to keep everyone’s attention from the opening kickoff.
That the two teams with the best home crowds wound up earning home semifinals was sheer luck. Just as easily, New York could have hosted a semifinal in a cavernous baseball stadium.
CBS has picked up Sunday’s final for its flagship network station, an apparent tip of the cap to the traction the league has built up the dial on CBS Sports Network. In picking up the game, CBS becomes the second of the four major networks to carry live rugby in recent years, as NBC has also made investments in showing international and European club games.
Gold outside center Tristan Blewett has been brought in by the NFL’s Saints for a tryout, earning the league valuable media attention in Louisiana and elsewhere. The 22-year-old South African landed in New Orleans by way of the Pro 14, having played for the Southern Kings last season. He scored 12 tries for the Gold, good for third-best in the league, and nearly led them to a playoff berth. Blewett returned punts at Saints practice this week.
Surging attendance and increased interest from broadcasters are great signs for a fledgling league. So is continued interest in expansion. The league will grow to 12 teams for the 2020 season, folding in Rugby ATL, Old Glory D.C. and the New England Free Jacks. There’s talk of interested ownership groups in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and elsewhere for 2021 and beyond.
If Toronto and New York proved anything this season, it’s that expansion teams don’t have to wait to compete. RUNY and the Arrows filled their rosters with local and regional talent and supplemented them with a couple of handfuls of international mercenaries, both making the semifinals in their maiden voyages.
Old Glory and the Free Jacks have followed in their footsteps, running exhibition seasons this spring to comb through their own local talent pools. Atlanta is starting a little slower, with combines just now getting underway, though general manager James Walker has signed some collegians already.
While momentum appears to be in the league’s favor at the moment, the second season wasn’t without bumps in the road. Austin and New York appear to be in financial trouble, multiple coaches have been axed unceremoniously, and though blizzard-like conditions seem in June like a distant past, the league’s struggle with seasonality is far from over.
The Elite went 0-16 this season. Attendance was so poor, they moved a home game to San Antonio and conceded another to New Orleans. Owner and CEO Thierry Daupin blamed the culture of rugby in Texas for his team’s woes, drawing ire throughout social media. He has since stepped down from the CEO role, making room for fellow owner Todd Clever to try his hand at fielding a winning side in front of some fans.
Considering Austin’s role in founding the league, the Elite’s demise is nothing short of a sad example of what can happen when a team loses touch with its target audience and local rugby community. The success stories of San Diego and Seattle don’t happen without the buy-in of the locals.
Houston, one of the most aggressive teams in the league, also struggled this season. A combined 3-16 record landed head coach Justin Fitzpatrick without a job at the beginning of May, and inclement weather both postponed and marred the opening of the nation’s second-or-third rugby-specific stadium, depending how you classify NOLA’s Gold Stadium. Interim head coach Paul Emerick led the Sabercats to four-straight victories to end the season, but largely in front of empty seats.
Houston barged into the inaugural season with a long preseason, generating buzz with more than 5,000 fans at their first exhibition. Despite being less than 18 months removed from that promising night, the Sabercats appear to have lost all momentum.
The personnel changes didn’t stop with Fitzpatrick. President Brian Colona has been replaced by a young baseball exec, JT Onyett, who joins the Sabercats from the Texas Airhogs, an independent minor-league team in suburban Dallas. Onyett previously worked for the Sugar Land Skeeters, whose home, Constellation Field, has been used on-and-off by the Sabercats.
Glendale’s Dave Williams also lost his job on the heels of the second season. He led the Raptors to a second-place finish in 2018, but Glendale failed to make the playoffs in 2019. A rash of player defections between seasons one and two were backed up by more discord between Williams and his charges this season, which ultimately resulted in his firing.
Glendale hasn’t named a replacement, but Emerick is expected to join the Raptors coaching staff in some capacity. He lived in Colorado for years prior to moving to Houston ahead of the season.
New York has dealt with some unrest, too. The team finished the season without a full practice pitch, the semifinalists having to share with a local club side. Word out of New York is owner James Kennedy can’t afford to run the team any longer without significant outside investment or a sale. Austin was in a similar situation earlier this season, and Utah needed an infusion of cash just before year two kicked off.
The harsh reality is those responsible for getting the league through year two are going to start disappearing. Daupin is still an owner for the Elite, so he isn’t gone, but he isn’t making the front office decisions anymore. Fitzpatrick built Houston’s club almost single handedly, enduring the constant change of scenery, being jettisoned just in time for Aveva Stadium to open in earnest. No one can take the run to the inaugural final off Williams’ resume, but he won’t be a part of Glendale’s next playoff success. If Kennedy sells or dilutes his interest in RUNY, similar things could be said about him.
The same will likely end up being true for entire franchises. Given the acrimony and apathy in Austin, it’s hard to imagine an MLR team taking root in Texas’ capital city at this point.
Growing pains are how the mixture of excitement, opportunity, potential, threat, fear and fragility are often couched. I’d offer a different analogy – stretchmarks. As the living, breathing thing that is the MLR grows, scars will be left. If those scars pile up incommensurately to the strength, growth and maturity of the league, the whole venture could become so unattractive it fails to take flight. But if every blemish is accompanied by significant gains, like how some of the untidiness of year two is accompanied by surging attendance and attention, then we may get to see this thing grow into adulthood.