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Major League Lacrosse

The year 2015 will witness a number of USA professional rugby ideas and initiatives. Rugby Today will follow the development of these concepts, and also, as today and tomorrow with Lacrosse, examine prior examples of the founding of professional leagues in the country.

Lacrosse Factoids

290,000 high school players (boys and girls)

404,000 youth, under 15 (boys and girls)

37,000 college players (men and women)

240 professional (men)

14,000 club players, mainly male

Division I, II and III college participation with annual playoffs

NCAA final game has drawn crowds of 40,000 plus

College stats (team and individual with player line ups) on, equipment sales

Professional Data

Two leagues

One outdoor: Major League Lacrosse (MLL)

One indoor: National Lacrosse League (NLL)

MLL founded in 2001. Currently 8 teams with 14 games, April thru August

MLL started with six teams, expanded to ten, dropped to six, and added two for eight

MLL attendance average in 2013 = 4,800

MLL high attendance in 2013 = 10,400 Denver

MLL low attendance in 2013 = 1,204 Florida

Television exposure

MLL games aired on ESPN2 and ESPN3 or CBS since 2003

Television contract extends to 2016

NCAA college games aired, which generate higher ratings than MLL

NCAA championship contest aired with annual high viewership

MLL Games aired at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Key Findings

The MLL is a new professional sports league, which has succeeded in carving out a niche for lacrosse fans, performing better in certain geographical areas. It also has continued cable channel television exposure for both the college and professional game.








Key in this equation is the high school penetration with associated rivalries for local flair and media and even more importantly is the College Varsity Status with scholarships, rivalries, and then media. Those two things came before the professional teams. The television exposure in Colleges led to the proof that there were audiences. These in turn led to the belief that a professional league could draw viewers. The prior discussion about College Club versus program is key to the evolution.
It would be useful to know ticket prices and TV ratings. How much are they spending to get butts in the seats? How much money is spent to grow the TV audience? What are the ads rates (A few thousand per 30 second spot?). What is the salary structure for players, coaches, and administrators? Are they full time or do they have other job to support themselves? For any league to succeed people who do not play the sport need to become fans. Youth programs are helpful to grow a sport but this needs to convert to tickets and merchandise sales and TV ad revenue.
The average salary in the MLL ranges between $10-25,000 a season. They have a TV deal but apparently don't actually receive any money from it. Not great numbers for a league that is well established and recording strong participation growth year on year. Their average attendance is down from its peak in 2011 and has decline steadily since. This would suggest that there are issue with their business plan. Looking beyond those issues I think it's still a model Rugby could use as a template. I think it has a few natural advantages that may allow it to overcome some of the issues experienced by the MLL. Having said that, it has to be asked. Is the Rugby landscape in the US ready for the emergence of Pro Rugby? Specifically, is the base wide enough to ensure franchises will receive enough support to remain financially viable? Would Rugby be better served taking the City based rep approach to establish a amateur league played outside the current club windows that provides a relatively low break even point. A model with set objectives to transition toward professionalism over a set timeframe.
Interesting MLL numbers. For professional rugby to work in the US it will need to be profitable without TV ad revenue in the early years. TV sponsors are not stepping up for third tier sports yet. If all league revenue is from ticket revenue and merchandise, that means cost for players and staff must be keep low. This is one reason why Super Sevens was developed. With 21 player and 4 staff, 25 people travel for each event. A four team 7s pool format like Premiership 7s would require 45 people to travel for each event (12 players, 3 staff, time 3 teams). Fifteens is about the same as Super 7s in terms of travel expense. Of course TV ad potential is greater for 7s relative to 15 given all the breaks, but in the early year TV will not be a factor. 5000 fans at $20 each is $100k revenue per event. Stadium probably costs $25k. Total payout to teams (players and coaches) can not be more than $50k per week. So $1000 per week is as much as anyone will make in pro rugby in the US until TV ratings improve and sponsors start paying for ten of thousands for 30 second spots.
You are ahead of yourselves. Until you get the game mainstream enough to depict athletes and not binge drinkers you will not get a professional league. The upcoming World Cup and Olympics will make huge in roads to demonstrate the athleticism. Key will be the coverage by NBC and also the continued development of the College game. What has happen in the last 4 years as to true rugby college programs has eclipsed 20 years of College Club rugby.The continued varsity status for women and now the varsity status for men is driving the advance of the game. The quality of play continues to improve dramatically each year.
It is highly unlikely that Men's rugby will get very far as a varsity sport given Title IX restrictions. Men's programs need to develop an operating model in which they get access to high performance resources without varsity status. This could be done by creating a well financed and well managed not-for-profit foundation that operates independently of the college club which is managed by students. Such a foundation could hire a quality coach and provide funding and advisory services to the students to improve the quality of rugby a the college level. At some point the foundation could provide scholarships but the near term need is to provide funding for high performance operations.
Good article about the lives of professional lacrosse players. One could expect a similar environment for professional rugby players in the early years of any league.
I frankly don't see Super 7's as the avenue towards professional rugby. But then again I am not a huge 7's fan. One of my take away's from the Super 7 game was that the pace was nothing compared to the standard 7 a side match. Which is to be expected of course. If Super 7's is going to try then I would shorten the minutes to 7 per half …. just like …. 7's. For a TV format that means 28 minutes of broadcast, giving plenty of time for ad's and human interest etc …. For a 15's league I don't see more than 6 teams to start. Assume 30 man squads paid at 25 K to start. Perhaps a non paying academy side for development purposes / cover for injuries. This would put the payroll at 750,000 per team plus coaches etc so for arguments sake lets say a payroll of 1 million per team; 6 million for the league at the team level plus whatever league level employment there would be. Some of the non playing team employees could be college interns. I assume there would not be individual team owners but all teams would be owned at the league level. Under this model a couple deep pocket investors could be brought on board rather than having to find 6 separate ownership groups. At least one corporate sponsor would be needed - MLL has New Balance Athletic Shoe (though they are quiet about it - I used to work at NB and the MLL league offices were on the first floor of Coprorate HQ). I am not sure that 4000 tickets sold per game is possible to start. I would think that something less than this should be expected - and to start giving away tickets to HS programs should be considered. Get bums in seats. Now, what rugby has that the MLL does not is an international component. Assuming the league is affiliated with USA Rugby (which means a league other than NARL) then test match income could be used to help with financing the league as could touring by Premiership sides. It's an option that can't be dismissed. I personally feel that we are 5 yrs out from a league but competing interests (USA Rugby vs NRFL) will likely push this forward - hopefully not to the detriment to the introduction of pro rugby. And finally - the rugby fraternity is going to have to get behind this. In the major cities there are certainly thousands of adults that have been involved with rugby - Americans and ex pats included. We as a community have to give this a chance to succeed by turning up and supporting the local team.
I have a somewhat different take on the pro rugby movement. I think it should come but I at first the priority should be on ensure cost effectiveness. Establish a league. Base it in the Western half of the nation. 6 teams. For the first season or two players aren't paid. So still amateur. A ten game regular season plus finals equaling 12 weeks. Just from my brief investigations it would cost on average $350-400 per traveling player per week. That's using budget accomodation (Holiday Inn) and low cost carriers. If you are moving squads of 30 over three squads that's $36,000 a round. Facilities hire is another major expense but you have to be realistic on the size. A start up doesn't need to be playing out of MLS stadiums from the beginning. Seated stadiums capable of holding between 5-8,000 people would be ideal. Using the fee Dallas FC pays for use of Toyota Stadium ($100,000 for 17 home games) say $6,000 for hire x 3 = $18,000. That's $54,000. For concessions, you could use food trucks and employ local clubs to help sell merchandise on a profit share set up. The national Union should be able to organise a deal with suppliers for equipment and jerseys. Then you have broadcast. Using high quality streaming options akin to Glendales the league could use its own footage to actively provide local TV with coverage for no cost. Add in their ads alongside any sponsors of the league and it provides the league with local coverage. costing this is a little harder. But we'll say $20,000 a round. In all a league could be delivered for less than $80,000 a round. Or $800,000 for the regular season. This provides a relatively low break even point. Over three games, if tickets are priced at around $20 p.p. each game only needs to attract 1,500 spectators. If placed in the right markets. That should be achievable. This doesn't take into account any sponsor or financial backing. Any external financing would lower that figure. This could be achieved by pressing for high grant levels. Existing business relations. A small number of investors. The goal will be to drive growth in spectator number that by season 3 player compensation can be initiated. However small it may be.
I agree with the bottom up approach focus on cost containment. What you have described could be layered onto the existing PRP or ARP if those clubs could agree to share their team ownership with third party investors.
I think the PRP has the season structure right but in the wrong format. Its too club focused. A model that isn't replicated in any successful pro league in the US. Any league needs to be representative of a city/region instead of beholden to one club. That and only Glendale has the facilities to really be considered. If they were open to combining forces to create city based franchises (i.e. Denver and Glendale, SFGG and Olympic, Santa Monica and Long Beach etc) and actively look to bring in a team from say Utah and Seattle I think they could get there while potentially attracting investor interest.