By Stuart Hardy
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We find ourselves in uncertain times, my friends. The Pro14 has been postponed, the 2020 Six Nations hopes to be completed by October, and the RFU could loseover £100million if the 2020 Autumn internationals are cancelled. A similar situation also applies south of the equator, for Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship. And that’s the bigger problem; that these are all maybes. Nothing is set in stone. Almost every rugby union competition is in limbo.
Almost every rugby union competition.
Across the Atlantic, in North America, is a new rugby competition called Major League Rugby. After its predecessor, PRO Rugby, went bust after only 1 season. MLR has grown each year since 2018, when the league started with 7 teams. In 2019, it gained new teams in New York and Toronto, before Washington DC, Atlanta, and Boston joined for 2020. And even though Colorado announced their departure from the league, MLR will be bolstered by the addition of teams in both Dallas and Los Angeles in 2021.
MLR made the bold decision to cancel its 2020 season. While other unions and competitions have sent players and coaches home, as well assizable, temporary pay cuts, the MLR Board of Directors decided to pay each player their full 2020 salary. In a world of uncertainty, having a definitive direction for MLR has done a world of good for both the players, and the league itself.
While based in North America, and featuring mainly US and Canadian players, MLR also hosts a respectable selection of international stars. The biggest names include Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu, but some names closer to home also appear – Leinster’s Cathal Marsh plays fly-half for Rugby United New York. Ulster’s David Busby joins the defending champions, Seattle Seawolves. Connacht’s Tadhg Leader, was the first captain for Boston’s New England Freejacks.
Now, don’t expect an exodus of players to join MLR just yet; the salary cap for each team in 2020 is $500,000 (€460,000) with only the average salary for full-time players estimated at $45,000 (Roughly €41,500) per season. While players in their prime for Ireland will be unlikely to make the journey, it could be a destination for the overlooked players, the 4th/5th choice for the provincial sides, or even the players reaching the end of their career. A 20 week season, and able to play and visit both coasts of the US can be an enticing offer.
While the 2020 season has ended abruptly, all focus is now on 2021. Led by League Commissioner, George Killebrew, the focus for the league will be sales, marketing, ticket sales, corporate activation, and arena management. Killebrew’s 27 years of experience with the Dallas Mavericks will surely be put to good use in that regard. Yes, MLR will likely be a decade or two off from rivaling the likes of Super Rugby or the Top14, for playing quality or purchasing power. But the groundwork is being established. The future is not yet certain, but with MLR, there are definitely more options ahead.
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