Rugby is a game of constant and continuous motion. As a professional sport in America, however, it has been anything but that with roughly a half dozen failed attempts over the past two decades.
Can the Salt Lake-based startup, Major League Rugby, which kicks off its inaugural season later this month, be the one to buck the trend? Following Major League Soccer’s single-entity model, and thanks to multi-year broadcast deals with CBS Sports and ESPN, MLR officials believe they have found a winning game plan for turning what has been viewed as a niche sport into a commercially viable pro league.
“Professional rugby has been something of a start-and-stop opportunity, unfortunately,” said Michael Jaquet, a former U.S. Ski and Snowboard executive who left to become the chief revenue officer for Major League Rugby last year. “… This is a sport that hasn’t been given the right try by the right people and we think we’re doing that with this one.”
On Thursday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium, the league introduced itself and one of its seven teams, the Utah Warriors, at a press conference. The Warriors will play their first game at the soccer stadium on March 30 but will play the majority of their contests at the smaller Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman.
By Jaquet’s own count, there have been at least a half dozen pro rugby leagues that have tried and failed to get off the ground in the U.S. over the past 20 years. Last year, a league called PRO Rugby folded after eight months. So you would be forgiven for viewing Major League Rugby with a skeptical eye.
Looking out at the 20,000-plus seats at Rio Tinto, Warriors center Paul Lasike even wondered what kind of crowd his new team might draw.
“It’s kind of hard to gauge, man,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to get it out there. I know a lot of people are interested but it’s a matter of pushing them through to buy tickets and come out and support.”
Lasike grew up playing rugby in New Zealand and later transitioned into a football standout at BYU. He spent two years in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals and the Chicago Bears, but all the while he stayed in touch with one of his old rugby coaches back in Provo.
“I knew football wasn’t going to last forever,” Lasike said. “Every year it was kind of like, ’Hey, if the NFL doesn’t work out there’s this league that’s starting.”
Kimball Kjar, who coached Lasike at BYU and recruited him to Major League Rugby, is now the general manager of the Utah Warriors. Kjar has spent the last two years working with other league officials to prepare a plan to give the league as long a runway as possible.
This week, the league announced a digital partnership that includes an 18-game package with ESPN. The league previously had secured a three-year deal with CBS Sports Network. This year, the network will broadcast 13 league games on Saturday nights. Next year, CBS Sports will carry 20 league games, including a championship game on its main network.
“We can weather the first 3-5 years, which is probably what it’s going to take to make this work,” he said.
Kjar, for one, is betting on success.
“I will guarantee you will walk away saying I want to come back for more,” he said. “If you don’t find the entertainment … just send me an email and we’ll get you your money back.”