“The Exponential Growth of Major League Rugby”
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The Exponential Growth of Major League Rugby
George Killebrew, Commissioner of Major League Rugby (MLR) addresses several current issues for the infant league. He speaks about the challenges the league faces in a crowded marketplace, approaches the key to driving interest, emphasizes the focus on youth development and also looks towards future expansion.
Established in 2017, the league played its inaugural season in 2018 with seven teams. After a successful introduction, the 2021 season will kick-off on March 20 with 12 teams – Atlanta, Austin, DC, Houston, Los Angeles, New England, New Orleans, New York, San Diego, Seattle, Utah and Toronto.
George Killebrew joined Major League Rugby as the league’s new Commissioner at the end of 2019 following 28 years with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks organization where he was Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer. It was the Mavericks’ long-standing owner and rugby enthusiast, Mark Cuban who recommended the role to George.
“Mark told me that their issue is the commercialization,” George begins. “He thought I could pull some of the people around me to populate this league office and really try and work on these commercialization issues.
“And that’s what we’ve done. I’ve been able to attract people I’ve worked with over the years in the industry to our league office and then populated our teams with people that have experience in this.
“The opportunity in this country to really establish a major, new professional sports league is unheard of. It’s not smooth sailing at all. But the opportunity to leave your mark on North American sport is rare, and I think there is a great opportunity here.”
“The commercialization of rugby is at the top of the list at World Rugby. It’s not just a USA Rugby issue, World Rugby issue or Major League Rugby issue, it’s just where we are as a sport.
“We are the only professional rugby league in North America, so rugby is not the problem. Our issue is the commercialization of the game, filling our stands, getting big rights feeds from media partners and getting big seven figure league sponsors.
“Obviously, rugby isn’t as mainstream in the United States and Canada as it is in the rest of the world so it’s about finding ways in a very crowded marketplace. Of our 12 teams, six are in the top ten media markets in the United States. Now, it’s about developing those fan bases, getting them to become fans of the game, getting them to attend our matches and getting them to follow us on television.
“Adding Los Angeles this year was a huge milestone. The LA market is one of the largest media markets in the US. We had planned on adding Dallas but due to a number of issues the team decided in mid-January to postpone their inaugural season. Dallas is a top-five television market and a region that is important to MLR’s long-term growth strategy. This was a difficult decision, but one that’s being done for prudent reasons and to serve the fan base, the team and the league well in the long run.”
America’s interest in rugby
“I think we know that this is the prime example of a sport that is loved internationally but hasn’t fully translated in North America.
“We haven’t been playing for almost a year now and what we are being told from our research is that there is this whole layer of sports fans in America who are very curious about rugby. They don’t want to just fall into that category as an NFL fan or NBA fan. They want their own thing, and that’s in really large numbers. Now it’s up to us to communicate to them how to attend and how to watch. Then, if they do indeed attend or watch, we have to make sure it’s a great experience.
“It’s right there for the taking. I don’t think there is another sport in the world that is as ripe as rugby is to succeed in North America. I can’t think of another.
“I look at the MLS as a great blueprint for us. The MLS at 25 years old is selling franchises for US$250 million – that’s what the new ones are paying to join MLS. Now, I hope it doesn’t take us 25 years; I’m trying to compact that into a shorter learning curve, but they have done a wonderful job no doubt about it and we are set up similarly – we are a single entity the way they are.
“I was that soccer dad when my sons were young, and soccer first arrived here. They’d ask me to explain the offside rule to them and I couldn’t because I didn’t know – it wasn’t indigenous to us. But if I was to take him to an NFL game or an MLB game or an NBA game, I could explain it. We are going through that same learning curve and that’s why it’s important to teach and explore the demographic.”
The key to driving interest
“Yes, the rugby has to be great, but all the other things that are important in American sports leagues have to be there as well. There has to be high entertainment value; there has to be music; there has to be things in the breaks to entertain fans; there has to be things for kids; and then there has to be things for you if you’re not so keen on the rugby, so there has to be good concession items.
“It’s no different to any other decision you make on how to spend your ‘entertainment dollar’. When the family is sitting around the dinner table on a Wednesday night trying to decide what to do on a Saturday, we have to be the answer to that question.”
In the pursuit of achieving success in growing MLR, George is not afraid of making adaptations that steer away from rugby’s traditions.
“One of my small pet peeves is not having names on the backs of the jerseys because I feel like if a mum or dad brings their son or daughter to one of our matches and they ask the parent ‘who’s number eight?’ and they can’t answer the question, it’s a problem for me and we’re making in-roads there.
“That’s not necessarily a traditional rugby path of wearing names on the back, but that’s how you become a household name in America. We need to develop stars so that kids can say ‘I want to be like them’ and we’re not doing a very good job of that at the moment.”
Youth Development and Collegiate Draft
MLR teams have made a major push in grassroots youth programs, which count for more than 50,000 youth players. With the ongoing pandemic, the 2020 season was abandoned after just five games and has given teams the opportunity to engage with local recreation programs to teach and grow the sport of rugby in their respective market.
“We have to continue to develop it from grassroots level, we need more kids playing rugby in the United States and Canada,” George affirms.
“We had two of our academy programs become fully sanctioned by USA Rugby last time around. [Now] everyone is ramping up. I imagine every team in the next round will have theirs sanctioned by USA Rugby.”
The 2020 MLR Collegiate draft took place in June 2020 and was a first-of-a- kind for Rugby Union in North America. An entry draft is intended to prevent expensive bidding wars for young talent and ensures that no one team can sign contracts with all of the best young players in order to preserve the league’s parity. The league’s adoption of American sporting traditions in the allocation of players to teams was an important step for Killebrew and the league as it outlines a clear pathway from youth participation to the professional game.
“I was really curious how many collegiate athletes would register for our draft,” George confesses. “I was hoping we would be able to fill two rounds, and then to go on and have 450 athletes register for that draft was very telling to me. I worked in the NBA for 28 years and that whole process from youth, to academy, to collegiate, to having your name called at the NBA draft was really important and we were missing that.
“Now we have that, and we are able to do two rounds, we will possibly [be able] expand that for next year. To have that pathway is really, really important and I think we’ve made that giant step and we have to continue to develop that.”
“Expansion in our situation, is not going to be as difficult as the example with the MLS of half a billion dollars to get in. You don’t need to have that in Major League Rugby. Our price point for entry, as such, means we can expand by a couple of teams a year no problem in my opinion, just because of that price point.
“We’re talking to about nine different cities that we’re not in right now – Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Honolulu and Miami, to name a few. Those are major cities for sports, and we aren’t even there yet. What we are looking for now is the right ownership group to come into those cities. We need them to be very well capitalised, we need to know that they’re in it for the long-run and that they can pay the bills and flourish.
“As part and parcel of that, they need to have a great stadium. Right now, if you have five-10 thousand seat stadium in Major League Rugby, you’re doing OK – but what happens when we draw more than 10, 15, or 20 thousand. The other thing you don’t want to be in is a giant facility that maybe you can’t fill today, so the stadium plan in your market [is very important].
“Then we want good operators. The rugby is going to take care of itself because we are the only professional league [in North America]. Now we need people who understand how to operate a sports franchise in North America. We need them to have executives that have
done it before. We need professionalism. We don’t necessarily need the top rugby DNA, we are going to be OK there, that is not our problem.”
Although MLR is still in its infancy, it already has major TV deals with CBS
and Fox Sports, who between them will broadcast around 34 matches nationally. The leagues finals will be broadcast nationally on CBS in primetime on August 1, 2021 – which will be no different to the NFL or any other major league in the United States. “That’ll be a landmark day for our league,” George remarks.
On the other hand, MLR will be broadcast on both Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 this coming season, whereas before the league was only broadcast on Fox Sports 2. Fox Sports 1 has around 20 million more viewers than Fox Sports 2, which is another big step up for the league. Each team will also conduct their own deals with either local carriers or regional sports networks.
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