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Major league Rugby’s highly-anticipated second season kicks off Saturday. Three big-picture narratives will dominate the MLR’s second go – sustainability, expansion and seasonality. The first column took a dive into sustainability, while the second focuses on expansion.
There are more teams and a higher salary cap, but the biggest difference in year two may well be the scope of the season. 2018 saw seven teams play eight regular-season games from April through June. This year, nine teams will play 16 regular-season matches from January through the first week of June.
The doubled workload will boost overall ticket sales and exposure, but depth will play a bigger factor in the standings. Weather and doubled player availability issues will add to the drama.
New York, Toronto, Utah and Glendale are cold through at least March, with the potential for snow and wintry conditions through April. So Toronto will play its first eight matches on the road, and finish with eight-straight road games. New York plays its first five matches away, and Glendale its first four. The Warriors play just their first two on the road.
Playing on the road so much, so early is both an opportunity and a potential banana skin. If you come out of it with a winning record, you like the abundance of home games on the back end, but if you start in a hole, you’ve got to dig your way out.
The potential for wintry weather is very much still in play. How will a Legion side with a bunch of South Africans, Fijians and Californians go in New York if it snows in April, as it sometimes does? How will a Sabercats team of Uruguayans, Texans and Fijians do in Toronto in April?
Last season, the heat was more of a factor for teams like Seattle and Utah when they played in Austin, Houston or New Orleans, and that will again come into play this season, but not as much, with the warmer-weather teams hosting on the front end and the northern teams hosting more towards the back end, but it’s worth tracking.
A more tangible result of the new seasonality is the six-week window in February and March where teams will lose players to their national teams for the Americas Rugby Championship. With Canada and the USA both having announced initial squads, already 31 players are slated to miss MLR duty. That’s not counting the numerous Uruguayans, Brazilians and Chileans sprinkled throughout the league.
Canada’s initial squad was for just the first two matches of the competition, and USA Rugby didn’t outline game-to-game availability like it’s done in years past, though it’s reasonable to assume some players will only be pulled from their clubs for a portion of the six-week window.
Some teams have been hit harder than others. The Toronto Arrows are losing seven, New Orleans and Glendale five, San Diego four, New York and Austin three, Seattle two, and Houston and Utah one.
While Glendale, San Diego, Toronto and New Orleans may all be contenders when at full strength, they risk falling behind in the standings early with some of their best players gone. New York is well positioned to withstand its losses, and Seattle and Utah are losing very little. For Houston, which finished last in 2018, potentially losing all four Uruguayans to Los Teros and tighthead Paul Mullen to the USA, could spell trouble.
The upside of the season, though, is that unlike with the NFL, the weather will improve throughout, culminating in the best conditions for the playoffs. And it avoids teams losing their best players to international duty during the final stretch, which happened last year with the June tests.
With this being a World Cup year and the new global calendar taking effect in 2020, the summer test window will be in July going forward, allowing the MLR to settle into the current window. This year will provide some data to suggest whether or not that's the best move, or if it needs some tweaking.
Another difference in this year’s schedule is the balance. It’s a true double-round-robin, with everyone playing everyone else twice each. Last year, with an odd number of teams and a short season, there was no way for everyone to play a balanced schedule. Now the standings will be unimpeachable at the end of the year.
The ripple effect of having a professional league is already in motion. Unions, leagues and clubs are starting to base their strategic planning off the presumption MLR will sustain over the long haul. The league's sheer existence in the spring will help shape seasonality for the rest of American rugby, as it should. A major issue with overseas professional rugby is that tens of thousands of potential customers are busy playing club ball while the pros are in action. In America, where our human resources are thinner, we have to be smarter. For that reason, MLR's seasonality is worth keeping an eye on.