Shamrock Thoughts: Major League Rugby Has Been A Success, But Can It Sustain?

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Needless to say, this has been a very successful inaugural season for Major League Rugby as it has not only seen a lot of positives, but has also contributed possibly to the success of the national side. My hope is that this can become something big like how Major League Soccer is now. That, however, is a long time from now if it follows the same trajectory.

What are some of the positives? Well for one it’s exposure. I mentioned in my article how great it is now to see professional rugby here in America as it allows me to see what players are being produced out of my home country. It was hard to know who was who when USA fielded a side for whatever international tournament was played as I was never able to see these guys play. Being able to see that now helps me understand American rugby even more.

Another positive is the attendance figures. While I have not seen the official tallies, from what I have seen is that a good amount of matches have seen good numbers in spectators including Seattle seeing a lot of sell outs. Clearly people are interested in the sport. Support and interest are very important factors and MLR checks both of those boxes thus far.

Then there is the television deals. The league has gotten deals with ESPN (though the only way you can watch those matches are on the ESPN+ which you need an account for), AT&T SportsNet and CBS Sports Network which is a really big for the sport to get recognition. That means either a die hard rugby fan can watch or someone who is casually flipping through channels looking for something to watch and then become intrigued by what rugby is. That’s exposure as well. Another great stat is that MLR is the highest rated show on CBS Sports Network at this moment. So that means that some of those casual watchers might even be tuning in again to watch more. That is a huge positive.

Another positive is that the league serves as a pipeline for players who played in high school or in college and being able to start their professional careers. It might mean that the players move on to play either in Europe or for one of the Southern Hemisphere teams in Super Rugby, but at least it gives MLR recognition. The league should also try to entice star players to come play for them. Imagine seeing Beauden Barrett or David Pocock playing right here in America. Heck, back when Richie McCaw was playing and if the league was in existence, imagine seeing one of the best players in the world playing in front of Americans. That would be awesome.

It also gives other players in any other competitions around the country a chance for playing professionally. When I was playing rugby in college, I played with a guy who was not only one of my best friends and was my sophomore roommate, but was also arguably the best player on our squad. His name is Aaron Craig, who is also a rugby analyst here on Rowe Sports Talk Network. When we were freshmen, he usually was selected to be a reserve forward. Then after that, he was starter. He could play as a prop and as a flanker, but his main position was at hooker where he truly excelled at. What helped him a lot was that he truly studied the game and was very smart on the pitch. Smarts can go a long way in rugby. He was also very physical and was quick, plus he was a leader as he was very vocal. I’ve been harping on him to tryout for a Major League Rugby team, but with Washington, D.C. possibly getting a team, I think the opportunity is there for him to showcase his skills.

Another talented player I played with and was also another one of my best friends and roommate my senior year, is a guy named Zewek Klonowski. He might have been the most athletic guy that I had ever gotten a chance to play with as he was extremely fast and also was extremely strong. His defense was exceptional as well, but on offense, he was quite the weapon as his speed was second to none. He was another guy who truly understood the sport and was also vocal. He probably could have played even as a lock as he was tall and strong, but his best position was at wing. Had he kept playing rugby, he could have gone on to do some big things and I truly believe that.

There were others I played with whom I think could possibly be good enough to play in Major League Rugby, but I decided to highlight these guys. There was another who might have been the best had he not had knee issues. But my point being was that if Major League Rugby was around earlier, players like I mentioned could have had a chance to go on to do something professionally.

And lastly, expansion. There have been talks already about expanding as New York and possibly Dallas will field teams next season and likely that of Washington, D.C. in 2020. The fact that expansion is already in the works suggests that MLR was more successful than I thought it was.

So can it sustain this success? I believe with everything I’m seeing so far and also watching a webinar about D.C. possibly getting a team that it can. In the webinar, there were already plans on building facilities including a stadium. It’s also the fastest growing team sport in America so this is a perfect time to do this. PRO Rugby never had the right business plan for them to even play a second season, but MLR seems to know what they are doing.

My hope is that this league can become something very big. I want the sport to be considered a top sport in America as to where people would say the “Big Six” when referring to all the top sports played in the country. If MLR can follow the same trajectory as MLS, then expect them to sustain this success for many years.

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