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Major league Rugby’s highly-anticipated second season kicks off in a few weeks. Most teams have named most of their rosters. The schedule is out. Tickets are sold. As week one approaches, watch this space as we examine top storylines, project breakout players and prognosticate the season.

Three big-picture narratives will dominate the MLR’s second go – sustainability, expansion and seasonality. Here’s a medium dive into the first.

The most remarkable aspect of season two is that there is a season two. Once the clock strikes 3 p.m. ET on Jan. 26 in New Orleans and the Arrows and Gold kick off, the MLR will officially have entered unchartered territory, becoming the only domestic professional league to show up for the first day of class sophomore year.

The question lingering that matters above all others is, will there be a year three? It may seem like an unfair question. The offseason has been mostly positive for the fledgling league. They’ve added two more franchises for 2019 and an additional three for 2020.

That means there are four more rich, successful people, or collections of rich, successful people, who see merit in the venture from a business perspective. Not only is that a good sign for the concept of professional rugby in America, but it’s strength in numbers.

If each franchise is a freshly boiled noodle, the more you throw at the wall, the more are likely to stick. If you have seven teams, as MLR did in year one, and three close shop, you’re left with a paltry four. If you have 12 teams, as the league is on pace to achieve next season, and you lose three, you’re still healthy with nine.

If the entire history of professional sport can be trusted as a guide, the question is not if teams will fold, rather who and when? The league’s maiden voyage was an unmitigated success, but it’s safe to assume not a single team made a profit last year.

The 2018 salary cap was $350,000. Seattle set the bar for attendance and fan engagement in year one, selling out all four home matches at Starfire Stadium, with a game day capacity around 3,000. Guess an average ticket price of $30, and the Seawolves raked in about $360,000 at the gate last season.

Ticket sales should be the team’s primary revenue stream, and Seattle’s barely covered its biggest fixed cost, player salaries. That’s without factoring a myriad of other expenses against fewer sources of income.

More than double the home games, new regional broadcasting deals, improved venues, an entire year’s worth of exposure and marketing, an expected better standard off the back off a raised salary cap and foreigner limit should help drive attendance, merchandise sales and the overall bottom line in 2019. However, the glaring omission from offseason headlines has been sponsorship.

While individual teams all appear to have sold the front of their jerseys and some have hocked other inventory, there’s no evidence of league-wide sponsorship yet. Without an infusion of corporate cash at both the team and league levels, several teams will be flirting with a short runway, relying almost solely on the individual wealth of their owners and ticket and merch sales.

The key performance indicators for each franchise and their likelihood of reaching year three, then, should be attendance and visible sponsorship activation. Will NOLA’s stands be fuller, can Austin multiply its crowd from last year at new digs in Dell Diamond? How many ad placements can you find built into the broadcast, around the stadiums, and peppered throughout social media? The more, the merrier.

Major League Rugby was a good product in 2018, and it looks to be even better in 2019. American rugby fans are buying in, literally. But the race to make ends to meet before cash runs out is still very much on.

Comments

I thought MLR had already entered uncharted territory -- by being the first US professional league to complete a season.
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