Is America Ready for a Pro Rugby Sevens Series?

Paging “Major League Rugby,” paging “Major League Rugby” – Patient in Operating Room Two.

Many years ago, back when we were still communicating with rocks and chisels, I had written a story about the feasibility of an organization called “Major League Rugby.” (link provided by the way way back machine at archive.org)

At the time, Major League Rugby was a curious idea – with teams based in a variety of cities, USA Rugby had its own competition which was, and to be fair after many iterations, still is USA Premier Rugby. Major League Rugby failed because it tried to bring a sport which was not ready for “prime time” into the American mainstream without the support of USA Rugby. When Major League Rugby then demanded use of USA Rugby’s officials and were denied

So fast forward to 2011 – we have a more mature international Sevens Series which is developing athletes and fans in parts of the world often overlooked by the Powers that Be of the Rugby Universe, we’ve recently witnessed a very successful USA Sevens International Tournament in Las Vegas and thanks to NBC we enjoyed live coverage of the USA Sevens and we’ll have the opportunity to see the collegiate Olympic Rugby championship and parts of the 2011 Rugby World Cup on network TV for the first time ever.  Rugby is the third fastest growing sport in America, and the women’s collegiate game is being considered to be a NCAA sport.

And of course, there’s that whole Olympic inclusion deal…

Is now the time to resurrect the “Major League Rugby” moniker (regardless of who owns it) and applying that to a new Olympic Rugby Series in America? I think it is, and in the next few posts I’m going to look at how a league might take shape here in America.

If it’s managed right, then rugby has a great potential to develop into a second tier sport, much like Major League Soccer or even the National Hockey League. But we have to have more foresight to developing a league that will last for years and take advantage of the inclusion of Olympic Rugby in the 2016 Olympic Games.

Some of my quick notes:

  • The league needs to be city-based, much as Major League Rugby.
  • There should be two conferences, east and west, with two divisions for each conference, for the north and south based teams.
  • In the new collegiate premier conference there have been reports of travel concerns as the season moves into the playoff rounds. This has to be avoided in Major League Rugby, with only the championship match to be played between the two conferences. (Say, maybe… at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports? Make it a weekend event for the entire family)
  • A maximum of 17 players per team, with room for reserve/”practice squad” players. (It allows for teams to play multiple matches per game without tiring our too many players)
  • Games should be played in a best-of-3 match series. The first team to win two matches wins the game. This will make it more attractive to TV if you can fill either 30 or 60 minutes of air time. Teams can field more players in a total series.
  • Draft – teams can’t be allowed to stockpile players, possibly with provisions to “franchise” one or two local players that come through their collegiate or youth rugby systems.
  • Salary Cap – each team has to have the same amount of money to offer in salaries to their players.  Possibly even a maximum per player spent amount, with bonuses built in for winning.
  • Teams need to be located in higher population centers, for marketing and interest reasons. Preferably with sevens teams that are already established and popular (NOVA, Atlantis, Seattle, etc.)

An important place to look for ideas has been the development of Major League Soccer over the past 2 decades or so.  MLS started out much in the same way that Major League Rugby needs to develop now.The original “Major League Rugby” might have been ahead of its time, without the organizational support, a broader spectator interest, or the financial foundation to make sense in the late 90s/early 00s, but now might be the right time to turn the growing interest in the sport into a second-tier professional league.

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