I can say with absolute certainty that at no time during my teens, twenties, thirties or forties did I ever say, “I’m excited about the start of a new American rugby season.”
Allow me to make up for lost time.
This weekend Major League Rugby begins its third campaign, and I’m genuinely looking forward to it.
It has grown from seven to 12 clubs in just three years, given a showcase to American players while bringing in some international stars, and looks like it might have the makings of a stable league.
I was curious about it in 2018 and got hooked last season. New MLR commissioner George Killebrew knows the key to long-lasting success is making sure American sports fans like me know it’s out there.
“I’m very excited for the opportunity to serve as the commissioner for Major League Rugby,” Killebrew said in an MLR news release. “I plan to build upon the groundwork that the MLR has laid in its first two seasons and use the third season to cement the league in the professional sports market. I will be working towards building ticket sales and sponsorships revenues and developing the very best media platform possible as we continue to help grow rugby participation across North America.”
MLR features 11 United States-based teams and one Canadian entry.
The Eastern Conference is made up of the New England (Weymouth, Massachusetts) Free Jacks, NOLA (New Orleans) Gold, Old Glory DC, Rugby United New York, Rugby ATL (Atlanta) and the Toronto Arrows.
Comprising the Western Conference are the Austin Gilgronis, Colorado (Glendale) Raptors, Houston SaberCats, San Diego Legion, two-time MLR champion Seattle Seawolves and Utah (Herriman) Warriors.
Each club plays 16 matches followed by the playoffs.
Atlanta, D.C. and New England are the new additions for 2020, and further (though careful) expansion is eyed in coming seasons. For now, the league’s focus is succeeding where it’s at and establishing itself as a viable circuit.
“For those of you new to the (Utah Warriors) and Major League Rugby, this concept isn’t going anywhere – it’s here to stay,” Kimball Kjar, CEO of the Utah team, said during his club’s recent media day event. “This is one of the fastest-growing leagues in the United States because people love the sport in America, they just don’t know it yet.”
I was among those flying blind when I first caught a match on CBS Sports Network a couple of years ago. I knew enough about it to loosely follow what was going on, and I was familiar with the reputations of the All Blacks (New Zealand), Springboks (South Africa) and Wallabies (Australia).
But the more I watched the more interested I became, so I checked out a couple of library books on rugby rules and strategy, and even watched some YouTube videos explaining game play.
United States Rugby is the national governing body for the sport in America, and features more than 120,000 members. There are quality club and college teams all across the country, and many players plucked from those ranks are now on MLR rosters.
But it never hurts to bring in big names from abroad, especially when you’re trying to put your league on the map. (Each team is allowed up to 10 internationals per roster).
Yes, imports like Tendai Mtawarira (Old Glory DC), Ben Foden (Rugby United New York) and Ma’a Nonu (San Diego Legion) are in their mid-30s, and you can make a strong case that they see MLR as a “retirement league.”
That doesn’t mean they’re washed up. Mtawarira, in fact, was a major reason South Africa won the World Cup last year and is a huge get heading into 2020.
“(Signing Mtawarira) is an incredibly strong message that the MLR competition is now a league that top players are starting to take seriously,” U.S. National Rugby Team coach Gary Gold said. “To have a player of Tendai’s ability, and in his current form, as we saw in the recent RWC final, is a testament to the work that has been put in over recent years to form a sustainable competitive competition in the USA that can attract players of the quality of Tendai.”
Part of the fun for me, though, is getting to know players I never knew before and watching as they (hopefully) turn this league into something special.
The season begins today with Colorado versus Houston at noon and Old Glory DC facing NOLA at 4 p.m.
On Sunday Rugby ATL hosts Utah at 3 p.m.; New York meets New England in Las Vegas at 4 p.m.; Seattle travels to San Diego for a 5 p.m. match; and Toronto takes a road trip to Austin for an 8 p.m. contest.
I’m glad I jumped on the MLR bandwagon.
And I’m excited about the start of a new American rugby season.