Passing Grade: Major League Rugby's Mid-Season Report
Written By: Adam McQueen
This past weekend marked the halfway point of the regular season for the inaugural Major League Rugby campaign.
The North American rugby community shared a cautious optimism when news broke of MLR’s birth in 2017 with PRO rugby’s misguided foray into professional rugby just two years prior still fresh in the mind.
However, the sweeping success of the first five rounds of the competition has allowed players and fans alike to shed a sigh of relief. Although not without its flaws, Major League Rugby has established a solid foundation and is opening the door for endless possibilities to grow the game in a way that was hard to envision before its existence.
First and foremost, it has become evidently clear that Major League Rugby has put considerable effort into promoting and professionalizing their brand. The television deal signed with CBS Sports as well as ESPN+ was an immediate boost to the league’s credibility and increase their exposure to casual viewers by being associated with such popular networks. These broadcasts have reportedly averaged close to 75,000 weekly domestic viewers. Add to this the fact that each respective team has their home games televised by local networks and that international viewers can watch every match through Facebook, Major League Rugby has made their product as accessible as possible for a brand new league.
In the new landscape of digital content, Major League Rugby has accepted the necessity of active social media engagement. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram has caused the sports news cycle to be a hyper competitive industry that runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is simply not enough to spark interest during weekend matches. Major League Rugby is following in the footsteps of a professional league that has best adjusted to social media trends in the United States, the NBA.
The NBA is one of the only sports boasting rising television ratings in the age of cord-cutting, which is in part due to them embracing new media as a source of promotion. While other leagues have adamantly taken down content and highlights posted on social media feeds, the NBA has ridden the strong current of social media’s ever-growing dominance. Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, explained in an interview with Strategy+Business that bite-sized highlights lead to greater fan engagement in the larger picture:
“If we provide those snacks to our fans on a free basis, they’re still going to want to eat meals - which are our games. There is no substitute for the live game experience. We believe that greater fan engagement through social media helps drive television ratings.”
Major League Rugby has worked in a similar fashion to generate fan interest. From posting ‘Top 10 Tries of the Week’, to individual franchises quickly retweeting footage of thunderous hits or scintillating passages of play, Major League Rugby is actively pushing their content to the forefront of users' news feeds. The league’s regular awards for player, team, and first XV of the week on Facebook and Twitter are also a welcome addition. Major League Rugby must continue to shine the light upon individual players and respective teams, as they will ultimately drive popularity of the league and place fans into the seats.
Another solid indication of the league’s commitment to the digital sphere is their presence within the subculture of ‘superfans’ that frequent Reddit. The r/MLR subreddit is primarily composed of North American rugby fanatics, people with close connections to franchises, and rugby fans across the world that have heard rumblings of the MLR. The webpage of a few thousand users has become a hub for inside scoops and rumours on new player signings, potential franchise expansions, and general discussion about the weekend matchups. As Major League Rugby’s Reddit platform strengthens, they will draw in new interest globally and facilitate fans becoming even more devoutly dedicated to players, teams, and the league as a whole.
While PRO Rugby’s heavily centralized structure led to its demise, Major League Rugby’s willingness to devolve power to their respective franchises has been a catalyst for their early success. From a financial standpoint, there is clearly more stability with a collaboration of independent clubs rather than a single individual controlling all finances and leading the entire operation. If one team stumbles, the league does not fall with it. During the PRO Rugby season, teams felt like carbon copies of one another just wearing slightly tweaked jerseys.
In the case of the MLR, however, the local ownership groups of the seven Major League Rugby franchises have brought a unique identity to each team. It is refreshing to see each team build different personas - swaths of San Diego fans were cloaked in suits of armour preparing for battle, the Seattle Seawolves emulating the blue and green strip of their American Football neighbours, the Seahawks, or Utah’s nickname as the ‘Warriors’ acknowledging the strong Polynesian community within the city.
Every franchise has recognized that they need to become instrumental parts of the community in order to improve the growth of their supporters. Viewer interest must extend beyond the league as a whole and toward a specific team in order to create a truly dedicated fanbase.
The Houston Sabercats management team, comprised of Brian Colona, Jeremy Turner, and Marty Power, emphasized in an interview with Ædelhard the importance of this player-fan relationship:
As a fledgling league, franchises must prioritize fan feedback in order to tailor their product and services as best as possible. Local support is the backbone for every team’s existence. San Diego and Seattle’s swift public response to fan’s comments about ways to improve the gameday experience is the epitome of adaptability – there is an acknowledgement that kinks will inevitably need to be ironed out; however, the quickest way to achieve this is by collaborating and listening to the people that consume the product and invest money into cheering for the team. Rather than dictate proceedings, Major League Rugby is instead embracing its decentralized, grassroots structure in order to evolve and build the most stable future possible.
From an on-field perspective, one of the most notable takeaways has been the surprising level of parity amongst teams. At the halfway point of the season, only five of the fourteen matches played have had a margin of victory in the double digits. Numerous affairs have gone down to the final whistle, creating a buzz that the playoff encounters will also be must-watch television.
However, what has also been apparent is the vast spectrum of talent and depth within each team. The franchises with a well-established club prior to the competition, Seattle and Glendale, have bolstered their squad with the most depth and subsequently sit as the favourites to take home the inaugural title. The Houston Sabercats' President, Brian Colona, acknowledges that all franchises must be leaders in strengthening the local talent pool that will produce future Major League Rugby players:
“Having a connection into every level that will ultimately feed the MLR teams will be critical to the success of all the teams,” Colona explains. “Whether it’s running youth-level skills camps, extending expertise to local high school coaches to grow and improve their program, or creating D1-type teams in your local market to act as a feeder into your MLR team – finding ways to building a robust pipeline of capable players that will be the stars of tomorrow is absolutely a priority.”
On the flip side, this very lack of depth within some teams has allowed their top tier stars to shine even more brightly. Teams are quickly being identified by their star’s abilities – Utah’s fearsome runners in the midfield with the human wrecking ball Paul Lasike and Tongan international Fetu’u Vainikolo, the Seawolves’ vaunted front row that has bullied each forward pack at scrum time, Austin Elite’s Hanco Germishuys being the most destructive force in the United States, or the silver fox, Taylor Howden, pulling the strings for New Orleans as one of the craftiest players in the league. For Major League Rugby to grow, the league must continue to promote these domestic stars while also bringing in recognizable names from overseas, similar to the Major League Soccer (MLS) model. The arrival of players, such as ex-England international Ben Foden to New York’s 2019 expansion team, draws outside interest and adds a level of international credibility.
Major League Rugby has created a far more intimate relationship between fans and American rugby. In years past, many casual viewers’ knowledge of players would only begin the moment they donned an Eagles’ jersey - now fans will keenly anticipate how young household names in Major League Rugby, like Vili Toluta’u or Anthony Salaber, may adapt to the step up to international competition.
This increased exposure of domestic players drives conversation similar to more established rugby playing countries like England and New Zealand where international squad announcements are massive events. These are the types of conversations that build rugby knowledge and fandom in North America.
Major League Rugby must continue to take risks. The solid foundation the competition has immediately built should allow for more flexibility in their future pursuits.
It seems that they are keenly aware of the fact as they plan to expand the league toward the east coast, adding New York into the fold (and hopefully for Canadian fans, the Ontario Arrows).
With collaboration among franchises and fan feedback, Major League Rugby needs to remain creative – launching an All-Star game, or even an All-Star weekend, could be a wildly popular endeavour. Producing an end of year awards show that includes fan voting is another method to stay active and engaging at season’s end. Every move that is made must have an eye on building the game, drawing more new eyeballs, and ultimately increasing revenue.
Nevertheless, these are the exact questions a new professional league hopes to be responding to after their first five weeks of league play.