MLR attracts the stars but yet to earn stripes in the USA

International
by Stu Walmsley

Utah Warriors head coach and former Wallaby Chris Latham sits atop the bleachers of an ageing American football stadium looking out over the Nevada desert.

Less than a month after meeting his players, Latham has just overseen his team’s final preparation for a round-two Major League Rugby (MLR) clash in Las Vegas with the New England Free Jacks, a Boston-based expansion team.

This fixture, part of MLR’s Vegas Weekend, follows a first-up defeat in Atlanta, a week-long pre-season camp in Nevada and months of long-distance communication between Brisbane and Salt Lake City while the league finalised Latham’s working visa.

“Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind,” says the 44-year-old, who played 78 times for the Wallabies and worked most recently as Samoa’s attack coach at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

“But the guys have been pretty well prepared fitness wise, so the last few weeks have just been about working on our shape, and we actually controlled almost every facet of the game other than the final 20 minutes in Atlanta,” he says.

Now in its third year, MLR is still a little rough around the edges, but it’s already outlasted PRO Rugby, North America’s previous attempt at a national competition which collapsed in a series of law suits after a single season in 2016.

MLR now involves 12 teams split into eastern and western conferences, reducing travel costs, encouraging rivalries and increasing resonance with US fans more familiar with NFL and NBA formats.

The new league has made headlines by attracting international stars like Adam Ashley-Cooper (Austin), Tendai Mtawarira (Old Glory DC) and Ma'a Nonu (San Diego) and its growing status is the latest sign the sleeping giant of world rugby may finally be emerging from its long slumber.

“You hear a lot about the American market and rugby, and you hear about how if it ever kicks off it will just go gangbusters,” says Latham.

“Now, being here, you can definitely see that - so it’s pretty exciting to be part of.

“I don’t think this comp is the missing link, but it’s the start. You need new fans first, then you’ll start to get sponsorship and backing, and once that’s there the sky’s the limit.

“I’d be very surprised if it didn’t go off, to be honest.”

Chris Latham runs a Utah Warriors session at Sam Boyd Stadium prior to MLR’s Vegas Weekend. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyOn the back of victory over Scotland in June 2018, a first win over a Tier 1 opponent since defeating France in the 1924 Olympics, The USA rose to 12th in the world rankings and has also experienced consistent success in the World Rugby Sevens Series over the past few years.

In the toughest pool at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, the Eagles lost all four matches, but 13 of the 31 players selected to play in Japan came from MLR teams.

In April last year, the league also announced a strategic partnership with USA Rugby focussed on developing the game; crucial in terms of any future bid to host a World Cup in 2027 or 2031.

On the MLR front, there are certainly promising on-field signs in 2020 with the three expansion teams; Rugby ATL, the Free Jacks and Old Glory DC more than competitive over the first two weeks.

DC knocked off the reigning champion Seattle Seawolves in their first ever home game on Sunday and the undefeated Atlanta franchise won on the road in New Orleans against the highly-rated NOLA Gold.

But there’s also constant reminders of where the code remains in the pecking order of US pro sports; the multipurpose artificial pitch at Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium in DC is a crosshatch of markings for field hockey, American football, lacrosse and rugby, compromising the spectator experience and the sanity of the players.

Action from Old Glory’s win over Seattle at Cardinal Stadium in Washington DC.It didn’t seem to bother ‘The Beast’ (Mtawarira), who made a first barnstorming appearance for Old Glory on Sunday, but the arrival of other signings like Ashley-Cooper, Digby Ioane (Colorado Raptors) and Juan Manuel Leguizamón (Seattle) continues to be delayed by what the league describes as ‘visa issues’.

“It’s certainly not ideal,” Latham says of the continued absence of marquee players.

“But that’s the reality of where it’s at right now.

“There’s some thinking that big names will make this work and, to a degree, yes - the signing of big names will get people talking and get the word out there.

“But what’s really going to make the competition and rugby in the US successful is the long-term health of the league and that means investing in local development, local talent and long-term strategies for clubs to be able to financially survive.”

Latham’s words are straight from the song sheet of new MLR Commissioner George Killebrew, who was appointed in December after 27 years with the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA.

“It’s remarkable when you look at how far the MLR has come in three years compared to where other leagues (like Major League Soccer) were at, and the 12 owners are all dedicated to making this work,” says Killebrew.

“We have a national footprint from a broadcast perspective with CBS showing 17 matches and the finals and all the clubs have local broadcast partners, as well.

“In 2020, I want to start to focus on things we haven’t done as well, like the commercialisation of the sport, selling tickets, sponsorships and creating great game presence.

“There also needs to be robust community engagement, we need to continue to grow rugby at a youth level and train fans at an early age to follow the teams.”

New MLR Commissioner George Killebrew in Las Vegas on the weekend. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyKillebrew praised two-time champions Seattle for the outreach programs which have led to consistent league-high crowds of 3,600 (every home game at Starfire Sports Complex was a sell out in 2019), but is also excited by developments in Austin over the off season, where former Wallabies and All Blacks skills guru Mick Byrne has been appointed director of rugby.

The troubled franchise started out as Austin Elite Rugby, went winless in 2019 as the Austin Herd, and has been renamed again as the ‘Gilgronis’ after being purchased by Australian group Loyals LLC, led by Adam Gilchrist (the F45 Training co-founder, not the cricketer).

A Gilgronis is apparently a Texas-sized cocktail and, in a release put out by Loyals LLC chief executive Matt Burgess, fans have been promised festivities including a human fireball, fire spinner, fire breathers, BBQ championships and cheerleading competitions.

The franchise also intends to pay fees for every local youth player, is capping ticket sales at $5 per person for families and will provide kit to junior clubs at a wholesale price to make the sport more affordable.

“Sometimes in sport, you have to take some risks, and be a little outrageous in your marketing,” says Killebrew of renaming the franchise after an alcoholic drink.

“Of all our ownership groups, I think Adam is one of the most forward thinkers when it comes to marketing, and how to take something that isn’t very relevant today - and let’s be honest that franchise was not one of the high performers in this league - and is trying to breath life into it in a lot of different ways.

“One, through a name, two; through their policies and how they’re going to treat their community, three; moving into a first-class facility in the Circuit of the Americas.

“It really gives me great hope that the Austin franchise is going to compete to be one of the finest franchises in our league.”

Former USA Rugby captain and player welfare manager for the Austin Gilgronis, Todd Clever, with Austin director of rugby Mick Byrne. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyThe Gilgronis were one of the teams on show during the MLR Vegas Weekend just gone, suffering a 49-31 defeat to Rugby United New York on Saturday, but the main issue for the league in America’s entertainment capital was that the concept didn’t seem to rate as entertainment.

Major League Rugby? The staff in my hotel seem much more convinced I was in town for the National Automotive Dealers Expo or The Great Las Vegas Gun Show, events being staged on the same days in the city’s cavernous Convention Centre, just off The Strip.

The rugby, ironically, was being played perhaps where the guns should have been; out in the desert. A 30-minute drive south-east of Downtown lies Sam Boyd Stadium, a 50-year-old venue which more commonly hosts college football, supercross and monster trucks.

Its capacity is 40,000, but on a cold, windy day on February 9, only a few hundred die-hard fans were sprinkled throughout the faded red seating to watch The New England Free Jacks overwhelm Rugby United New York (RUNY) in the season opener.

A rather bloated Mathieu Bastareaud, the veteran of 103 Tests for France, waddled around in the centres for RUNY, their full back Ben Foden (who played 34 Tests for England) was at one point outsmarted by the cross bar, and it was a day on which there are few winners other than Nevada’s fickle mid-winter weather.

Mathieu Bastareaud in action for RUNY in Las Vegas. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyConditions had at least improved a week later when four matches were staged on February 15 and 16, including a 39-33 win for Latham’s Warriors, but the crowds remained underwhelming and there was a distinct lack of fireballs, cheerleaders or any other Vegas glitz to attract the non-rugby fan.

The concept did provide temporary respite to some franchises still snowbound in their home cities at this time of year; it was so cold last season during an early-March fixture in Glendale, Colorado, that Toronto fly half Sam Malcolm apparently left the field ‘incoherent’ and one of the centres fainted in the dressing room.

But judging by the jubilant and shirtless fans braving single digit temperatures in the bleachers to cheer on Old Glory in DC, you wonder if the Vegas venture was really worthwhile.

Old Glory fans celebrate the defeat of Seattle on Sunday.MLR stated it will ‘review the concept’ and Houston SabreCats captain Dewet Roos, who played 10 matches for the ACT Brumbies in 2017, lamented the fact the players didn’t even get a night out in Sin City after their match, something Latham was quite grateful for.

Most teams travelled direct from the stadium to McCarran International to catch red-eye flights home, and Roos confirmed it’s a no frills environment compared to Super Rugby, with the MLR salary cap still set at a very modest $US500,000.

“They money’s not that great, I took a pretty big hit from working full time as a project manager in Sydney, but you can survive for the six or seven months that you’re here, and the club’s really looking after us,” says the 29-year-old, who captained Southern Districts in the Shute Shield last season.

“I wanted to experience living in the US and I’m probably nearing the end of my career so I thought, if I can keep doing it professionally for a bit longer, then why not?

“It’s exciting to be a part of it when the competition’s just taking off, there’s more teams coming in, and there could be other opportunities that pop up if you’re here from the start and have established relationships.”

Houston SabreCats captain Dewet Roos calls the shots against Toronto. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyWith two tries, Roos was a clear stand out for the SabreCats in their nail-biting 27-22 loss to the Toronto Arrows in Vegas on Sunday, and he believes MLR could provide opportunities for the many players in Sydney and Brisbane who can’t quite snag a Super Rugby contract.

“If you look at Australia, there’s only four professional rugby teams, but in the Shute Shield and Brisbane comp there’s probably another 120 blokes there who can play professional rugby,” he says.

“It’s tough bikkies playing Shute Shield - train three or four nights a week, work a full-time job, then you come over here to a set up like we have in Houston.

“We’re full time, and you can hone in on your little individual skills and specifics.

“You just get better as a player and, you might be putting yourself out of Super Rugby by coming here, but I think Super Rugby will start looking over here anyway.”

There’s already evidence of this migration with former Waratahs and Warringah flanker Maclean Jones signing for Austin this week, and Roos is weighing up returning to Sydney later in the year or looking for opportunities in New Zealand’s ITM Cup, following the path Seattle’s Tim Metcher and San Diego lock Josh Furno took in 2019.

Tim Metcher in action for Seattle in Washington DC. Photo: Getty ImagesHaving launched the Aveva Stadium last year, Houston have joined Colorado as the only franchises with a purpose-built facility, and the league is hoping more will follow, noting that it was such a construction frenzy in the late 1990s which helped lay the foundation for the now burgeoning MLS.

But the key word is capital, and that starts with bums on seats, something Killebrew is well aware of.

“If you go to a Vegas show, nine times out of 10 you walk out saying; ‘wow’,” says Killebrew, speaking at the Westgate Resort, where Barry Manilow is currently playing.

“It’s a spectacle, there’s something for everyone. I’ve taken my wife and two sons to a Vegas show and everybody walks out saying; ‘that was really fun, thank you dad, that was great’.

“We’ve got to have the same thing with our rugby matches. It’s not good enough just to have a really competitive, close match that’s well fought.

“We’ll get the rugby faithful to come, but will we get their friends? Will we get the family?

“If we’re not, then we’re not going to grow the sport. We’ve got to have something for everyone.

“Whether it’s mascots, or game entertainment or half-time show, or concession items…. whatever your reason for enjoying it, we just have to find that reason, but right now we do not have that in this league."

Sparsely populated stands at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on the weekend. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyUnhindered by the weight of history or tradition, franchises have a pretty open brief to find that reason, and while he would like more domestic investment, Killebrew is heartened by the amount of foreign interest thus far in MLR.

The Scottish Rugby Union holds a minority stake in Old Glory DC, as does French club Clermont in the New Orleans-based NOLA Gold, RUNY are backed by the Kiwi-based Bolton Equities, the San Diego Legion are co-owned by Australian Darren Gardner and former Waratahs squad member James Godfrey is setting up the Los Angeles Loyals, who will join MLR in 2021 along with a 14th team, potentially in Dallas.

“I think what the international rugby community is realising is that those opportunities lie here in the United States, specifically with Major League Rugby,” Killebrew says.

“I’ve spent a lot of my first couple of months in the job talking to international investors who may want to buy stakes in some of our teams, and a couple of those transactions have already occurred.

“They’re important because a capital injection is always good, but it also means established rugby organisations are sharing best practice with our teams here in the US and Canada, on and off the field.

“It’s almost like getting a big brother who can help you manoeuvre in the early years in these harder areas.”

San Diego Legion’s Ma'a Nonu in action against Colorado on Sunday in Las Vegas. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyRoos agrees that an injection of capital is crucial, but MLR is fast and furious while there remains less emphasis on defence, and he believes the league shouldn’t discount the marketing potential of the actual rugby.

“Every new American that sees us play, they say; ‘you guys are tough, playing with no pads, and it’s just non stop’,” he says.

“There can be three or four minutes between plays in (American) football, so they find rugby fast and entertaining, and that will get a lot of bums on seats.

“Within 10 years I think it will be big, they’ve gone the right way about things by having private ownership of clubs, it’s just how they’re going to increase the salary cap and manage expansion.

“We’re also trying to get into the football schools to teach them some basic skills, like tackling with your shoulders, and they’ve been really receptive to it.

“We have to get in at that grass roots level and expose the players to the kids, get some recognition about the SabreCats and rugby.”

Dwayne Polataivao of the Utah Warriors is pursued by John Poland and Zack Stryffeler of the New England Free Jacks in Las Vegas on Saturday. Photo: Stuart WalmsleyAs the Queensland Reds return from a three-week Super Rugby road trip involving stops in four countries, Latham points out that Utah will never be away from Salt Lake City more than three days in the new conference system - but knows that crowds simply have to get bigger.

“Logistically it works perfectly but, again, it’s just about getting sponsorship behind it, getting the brand out there to attract fans, and making it something people want to come and watch,” he says.

“You need to try and produce something that’s going to get someone who doesn’t know the game to come and watch, because rugby itself for most people who don’t know it, isn’t going to be enough.

“But I’ve got no doubts, over time, if this does become successful, that rugby will be enough.”

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