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The plans for a Vancouver entrant into Major League Rugby starting in 2019 were announced earlier this week via a release from the team-to-be’s investment group. Backing the Vancouver effort are Adrian Balfour and Karl Harrison. Balfour is the owner of the Seattle Seawolves, one of the MLR’s original seven franchises, and Harrison is an investor.
Their potential involvement in two MLR franchises sets an interesting precedent. (It should be stated the release didn’t come from or include statements from the league itself.) In the traditional big four of American professional sport, NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, this kind of cross-ownership within the same league isn't practiced. In fact, until 20 years ago an NFL owner wasn’t allowed to have a stake in another pro team, even in a different sport.
Now, it’s relatively common. Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, also owns the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Colorado Rapids and Colorado Mammoths. Seattle Seahwaks owner Paul Allen also owns the Portland Trailblazers and the Seattle Sounders. There are more examples.
Still, ownership of multiple teams in the same league is taboo, if not against the rules entirely, depending on the sport. The NFL still has fairly strict rules dictating the circumstances under which an owner can have a stake in a team of another sport.
However, there is one major professional league in which this practice has precedent – Major League Soccer. At one point, Lamar Hunt, best known as the owner of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs and a founding owner of the American Football League, once owned three MLS franchises at the same time – the Kansas City Wizards, Columbus Crew and FC Dallas. Phil Anschutz, the namesake of AEG, once had a stake in eight MLS franchises.
These cross-ownerships came at a time when the MLS was still on shaky ground financially. Without Anschutz and Hunt stepping in with their deep pockets, the MLS might not exist as we know it today.
MLR is commissioned by Dean Howes, the former chief executive of the MLS’ Real Salt Lake, and the league’s ownership structure and back office is modeled after that of the MLS. Just look at the logos side-by-side to get an idea of how the MLR views the MLS, and itself in comparison. So it shouldn’t come as a shock that the MLR would defer to the MLS’ history on the matter of multi-team ownership. An MLR official confirmed there is no rule against it. When it comes to rules and operating procedures, the league office doesn't dictate to the teams. There is a board with representation from each team that makes the big decisions.
There are some storylines to keep an eye on as both teams progress. Perhaps the most obvious is the role of Curry Hitchborn – he’s the rugby development director for the Seattle Seawolves and has already been tapped for the role of director of rugby for the yet-to-be-named Vancouver team. Effectively, he’ll be charged with simultaneously helping the Seawolves get off the ground in the inaugural season and building its geographic rival for the second.
Considering the makeup of the Seattle team, this is even more intriguing. Of the 20 players the Seawolves have signed, seven are Canadian. Several have ties to Vancouver or British Columbia. It’s unclear if they’re on one-year or multi-year contracts, but it would stand to reason that Canadian players might want to play for a Canadian franchise. If they left en masse for Vancouver, or the team expected to sprout up in Ontario, it would rip a sizeable hole in the Seawolves’ roster heading into year two.
The amount of international players on Seattle’s roster in itself needs explanation. Word leaked out in the lead-up to the initial season that each team would be allowed to carry five players who don’t qualify for the United States national team. In reality, the MLR is taking direction from the MLS’s policy, which looks at the cumulative of internationals league-wide and not the per-team count. So each team has five international slots, but those can be dealt between teams.
At first glance, it would appear Seattle has gathered as many as six additional international slots – seven Canadians, England-capped Mat Turner, South African Riekert Hattingh, Australian Peter Smith and Belgian Jeramy Lenaerts, who doesn’t qualify for the Eagles despite having played collegiately at Central Washington.
Looking at the move through an optimistic lens, it is encouraging that Seattle has owners deep-pocketed enough to take on two franchises. It’s also a good sign they see enough potential in the league to double down on their investment.
Vancouver isn’t the first new franchise to go public with its plan to join the MLR in 2019. A New York team has been announced, and it will be led by James Kennedy, and former professional wrestler John Layfield is involved. As a precursor to jumping into the MLR, it will play some matches this spring, and it will be coached by former Eagles head man Mike Tolkin and longtime cohort Bruce McLane, both of whom have helped lead Xavier High School and the New York Athletic Club to national titles at their respective levels.
There’s also the Ontario side, named the Arrows, which will play some preliminary games this spring, too. The Chicago Lions and Kansas City Blues, both originally thought to be participants for the inaugural season, may also be ready to field teams in 2019. Boston is another city working to get a team, and there are more in communication with the league office which haven’t come to light yet.
If the league gets to a number where it can, expect it to split into two symmetrical conferences or divisions to ease the cost of travel. In that scenario, Seattle and Vancouver would almost be certainly drawn together, adding more depth to the intrigue of their shared ownership.