When the San Diego Legion scored in the waning seconds to defeat Rugby United New York, 24-22, back in June, I felt a real sense of disappointment.
A win would’ve put New York in the Major League Rugby championship game, while a loss meant their season was over. I was hoping the Orange and Blue would pull it out, because they’ve become my favorite team in a sport I’m growing increasingly fond of.
Developing that kind of attachment is significant considering that a couple of years ago my knowledge (and interest) in rugby was mostly confined to the movie “Invictus.”
Yet a little over a month after Major League Rugby closed out Year Two (with the Seattle Seawolves claiming their second consecutive MLR crown), I’m already looking forward to its “new and improved” 2020 version.
I got curious about North America’s pro rugby league during its inaugural season in 2018, giving it what you might call a loose follow.
The organization featured the Austin Elite, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle and the Utah Warriors.
This year, though, it added New York and the Toronto Arrows, and I became a legitimate fan. I watched as many matches as I could and kept track of player performances across the league.
New York became my team of choice because – although I’m a Birmingham, Alabama, native – the Big Apple is always my default sports city.
And as someone who has spent many a spring hoping upstart football leagues would take hold, now I’m more concerned with pro rugby sticking its landing.
And so far, it seems to be on the right track.
When Major League Rugby gets back in action next February, there will be 12 teams thanks to the addition of the New England Free Jacks, Old Glory DC and Rugby ATL. Expansion goes against the trend of upstart leagues that tend to sputter at launch and then crash and burn.
“It was our sophomore year and we grew a little bit, and that’s an atypical thing in the world of sports,” MLR commissioner Dean Howes told Martin Pegelly of The Guardian. “Your second year is usually kind of a tough year, and I think we grew and I think we’re poised to build.”
Unlike spring football circuits that will always live under the shadow of the NFL, MLR has the potential to cast its own shadow.
PRO Rugby was the first pro league to set up shop in America, but lasted only one season (2016).
MLR, on the other hand, has lured some of the United States’ best amateur rugby stars as well as respected international players.
“We want to build up our domestic teams, our players, and our national team,” Howes told The Guardian. “But at the same time we feel one of the important things is that we have some international players to try to teach our players.”
MLR also has a formal “strategic agreement” with USA Rugby, the governing body for the sport in America.
“The advent of professional rugby is such a substantial step in advancement of the game, so we’re happy to have built a robust partnership to best find mutual support in each other,” USA Rugby CEO Ross Young said.
So how far does MLR have to go before becoming a stable league?
By comparison the Premiership (the top-tier of rugby union competition in England), draws an average of 14,500 fans per match. In 2019 the MLR averaged 1,900 paying customers per contest, with the biggest crowd (6,000) showing up for Seattle’s win over San Diego in the championship match.
That might seem like a big gap, but attendance was trending upward as the season progressed, and the playoffs were a hit at the box office.
Some teams are still trying to find suitable stadiums, and I imagine if you could look five years into the future you’d see some MLR teams relocate or simply close up shop.
But, the fact that I can look five years into the future and see Major League Rugby a part of it is pretty exciting.
Hopefully, it’ll keep getting bigger and better.