With Major League Rugby about to begin later this month, many fans of the sport are wondering all the same thing; “Will it work?” God I hope so. In 2016, a professional rugby league, PRO Rugby, launched and most of us rugby fans exclaimed “Finally!” It folded after the season. There was even talk about Pro14 expanding into the United States, which is arguably one of the best rugby leagues in the world. Those talks have seemed to stall though. With MLR, hopefully it could be a success.
Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in the United States, so it’s time to have a professional league in our country. Exposure is incredibly important (along with educating the United States about the sport), so to see rugby played on our home soil is the best way to get people engaged. Sure, they could watch it at the college level, but that doesn’t get enough recognition. In a country of 325 million, there are bound to be enough athletes that could become rugby players and if that is the case, the U.S. could actually become good at the sport. Also with the concussion issue with American Football, some people would be willing to play a contact sport that is a lot safer (and for any of my compatriots reading that sentence, yes it is safer than football). Plus, there are a lot of football players who will never make it in college or in the NFL, and those players could take the chance of playing a contact sport still especially with the athleticism they have. The opportunities are there, they just need to be exercised.
So how can this model work? Well for starters, television. There’s already a strong start with that as CBS Sports will be airing most of the matches with ESPN showing the ones CBS Sports doesn’t. That is absolutely huge for the league as they are already getting more exposure than PRO Rugby ever had. I think CBS Sports and ESPN are already seeing the opportunity and they are going to try and take it.
Another way is engage with people who are interested in learning about the sport on social media. They need to make as many videos that would be “cool” to watch and share it on platforms like Twitter and Facebook which might intrigue people to possibly watch their league.
And lastly, for casual fans or just to get any person to the match, use promotions as reasons to get people to come. I know this is kind of bad to promote this, but considering how drinking alcohol and rugby kind of go hand in hand, use some sort of promotions with beer or margaritas or whatever type of alcohol. Then you could maybe do some sort of fun family outing type of thing or even something for college students. That will certainly get some people to come and that could hopefully pique some interest in citizens of this nation.
Outside of those things, to get people to watch rugby, you have to teach it to them.
There is some encouraging signs that this league could work as the other day the Utah Warriors had an attendance figure that was more than 9,000 fans. And that was an exhibition match. If all the clubs can market their team well, I can see this being a success.
One other thing that will entice people to come out is how competitive the league is. I was looking at the schedule and teams will be playing eight matches. That isn’t much at all. There are seven clubs in the league, so you have to expand the amount of matches played. Now, lots of other leagues across the world play 22 matches and then have a postseason, but that is too early for MLR to do that. While I would prefer to have 20 matches played for the season, I think if you play the six other clubs in your league twice in a season, theres twelve matches right there. More money for the clubs and more money for sponsors and networks. More money also means it will be successful. Playoffs is a different matter which I could go into further down the road.
What I don’t like about the league in it’s current stage is that the furthest East the clubs are is in New Orleans. Admittedly, its hard to get a league going when the teams are so spread out in the country, but having no teams on the East Coast I think is ludicrous. However, the league apparently are starting teams in “historic rugby communities.” Not quite sure that’s the best way of approaching that as you can do that with a few cities like San Diego and also install a club in a big market like New York where a lot of the money lies.
So the back to the original question: Will Major League Rugby succeed? I hope so, but I don’t know. While the league is off to a much better start than PRO Rugby, I get this gut feeling than it won’t. I am so happy that the television contracts that were made happened, but that doesn’t mean it will be successful. I already see the league playing at least two more seasons, but interest will be key. With that, it will be hard as the U.S. already has the four top sports in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey with also soccer rising in popularity, it’s going to be hard to see rugby gain popularity unless there is more exposure (which has been evident with NBC Sports Network showing this past Six Nations Tournament).
However, I hope this league works out as rugby is truly a great sport and I can see it working in the country if it’s done right, but there are a lot of other factors to incorporate here. Exposure will be the ultimate challenge here as that is the only way to get people interested and they will have to find a way to do that especially with how many sports that dominate here already.
It’s still too early to see whether there will be any success, but if it is one, it will be great for the growth of the sport here in the United States.