Many years ago I wrote an online column asking if USA Rugby was trying to destroy what was called “Major League Rugby” at the time. While my answer hasn’t changed too much in the decade or so since, I’m starting to wonder if high-level rugby in the United States is just doomed.
What brought this up recently was the announcement from USA’s Rugby Super League that OMBAC, one of the most storied clubs in America and one of the Super League’s founding clubs , was dropping out of the competition next year. OMBAC (Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, based in Cali.) decided that they needed more matches to stay competition fit for a run at the national title (my guess, I haven’t yet asked Bob Watkins of his opinion), and in order to do that they needed to stick with So Cal Division 1 rugby.
Since OMBAC can’t compete in both competitions, they need to bail on the Super League this year and hope to return next year. OMBAC is the third team this off-season to bail on the Rugby Super League, following on the heels of the fellow RSL founding club the Potomac Athletic Club (aka PAC, based in Washington, D.C.) and the Boston Irish Wolfhounds.
So I have to ask, is the Rugby Super League eventually doomed to failure, much as Major League Rugby was at the time many years back?
I think they are, but for different reasons.
Back in the day, Major League Rugby appeared to have an intriguing idea – bring higher-level rugby to a city-based league. Major cities would have one team, maybe two, and would compete against other cities instead of other clubs, even those based in the same geographic locations.
Traditionally, rugby teams would move up and down the ladder from lower to higher divisions based on their performance, through promotion and relegation. While this works in Europe for the most part (in rugby and soccer), American sports programs have always been different.
We like our “professional” teams to be city-based, with a consistency of who will be competing in the league from year to year. Fans wouldn’t want the Buffalo Bills, for example, to be relegated to minor league football while some UFL team like Las Vegas was promoted to replace them.
(Although to be fair, of all of the teams in the NFL who have earned relegation back to the minors, the Bills are at the head of the class and this should be seriously considered)
And Americans have a strong devotion to college athletics, as witnessed by the massive amounts of energy and money spent on these activities every year. Even top flight college teams like Cal have a strong enough financial base that they are considered to be a revenue source for the university.
These are a few ideas for Rugby Super League to consider when they start revamping the RSL later this year. If you have teams based by location, and not just by what teams are the hot teams this year, and if you allow those teams to have a recruiting base that makes sense from a regional standpoint, you might see more success from the Rugby Super League, even if this stands counter to how rugby is played “across the pond.”