Major League Rugby: A 'new future' for rugby in America

Story highlights

  • The first Major League Rugby game will be played on April 21
  • Seven teams will feature in the inaugural season
  • Players have "cautious optimism" ahead of launch

(CNN)At Texas' Dyer Stadium this Saturday, players, coaches and investors alike will be a cocktail of anxiety and excitement.

Just over a year since North America's first professional rugby competition fell flat, another is ready to hit the ground running.
Seven teams will feature in the inaugural edition of Major League Rugby (MLR), which gets underway when the Houston SabreCats take on New Orleans Gold. Two teams -- based in New York and Dallas -- will be added to the competition in 2019.
    America has long been viewed as rugby's sleeping giant -- a country with the facilities, athletes and audience to become a global asset to the game.
    The MLR could be a step in that direction.
    "We've been at this with our shoulder to the wheel for two solid years so I think everyone's ready to just get this on the road and see how it runs," league commissioner Dean Howes tells CNN.
    "I'm anxious for it, anxious to see the crowd's reaction. I'm the commissioner, I don't have to worry about who wins -- I just have to worry about the overall product on the field.
    "For us, it's at least the start of a new future."
    Houston SaberCats' center Malacchi Esdale greets fans after a pre-season exhibition game.

    Early days

    The vision for MLR was one that was born even before PRO Rugby -- America's first stab at a professional competition for the sport -- had collapsed.
    "Pro Rugby was already suspending games and having difficulty by the time I got involved so my focus was really on building what I believe is a sustainable model," explains Howes.
    "From the start to the kick off in the coming week that's what we did; we secured finance and funding, we secured media deals, secured our players and the player pool around that."
    The opening weekend will also see the San Diego Legion take on the Seattle Seawolves and Austin Elite Rugby play the Glendale Raptors; the Utah Warriors are due to make their bow the week after.
    With nine teams ready to compete the 2019 season, Howes, who previously played a part in establishing Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer, says he'd like to see 16 to 20 franchises in the league in the next 10 years.
    The current players have largely been drawn from the US, but each squad has a number of slots for internationals -- be they older players looking for an end-of-career option or young players who can't yet play at the highest level in Europe or the Southern Hemisphere.
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    Media deals with CBS Sports Network, ESPN, AT&T and Cox -- connections PRO Rugby struggled to secure -- will give the league a stepping stone to national and international audiences.

    Finding fans, picking players

    Seven-a-side rugby has seen success on and off the field this year. USA recently won its second ever world title in front of a packed Sam Boyd stadium in Las Vegas.
    Although the Las Vegas leg of the sevens world series has been a resounding success in recent years, more American fans, says Howes, need to discover the attractions of rugby -- which he thinks are many.
    "American sports fan loves to count," he postulates. "Strikes, balls, home runs, interceptions, touch downs, touches, shots, shots on goal. Rugby is a great sport for counting -- to start with you're never going to see a 0-0 draw.
    "I think it can convert a lot of young players because I think there's so much going on all the time and so many great things that define the game.
    "This is football without the pads, which to me makes it far more intimate -- you're going to see the bruise on the arm, the scrape on the knee.
    "We'd like people to think 'actually, this is worth two hours of my time: this is fun, it's interesting, these young men work really hard out there, they're respectful and its constant motion.'"
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    Attracting fans is one thing; inspiring the next generation to take up the sport is another.
    Between 2016 and 2017, team participation in rugby grew 18.7% in the USA -- more than any other sport.
    But while local clubs are thriving, many players are converting to the sport in their late teens or early 20s. USA Rugby wants to increase the number of players at a grassroots level, and the MLR is shouldering some of that responsibility.
    "Every team in the league is charged with getting into the high schools and improving the high school programs," says Howes. "Working with people to develop better coaches and more accredited coaches."
    "It's going to be a process but we're going to focus and try to influence every one of those bands from youth to high school to club, college, pro.
    "We think there are a lot of athletes in this country that will fit the mold of a good rugby player. It's a different body types to the NBA, the NFL for the most part."

    'Cautious optimism' in Seattle

    In Seattle, a city with a proud sporting heritage, MLR has created another opportunity for professional rugby in the North West corner of the US.
    Recently, 12 players, including hooker Mike Shepherd, have switched from the Seattle Saracens, a global affiliate of the English Premiership side, to represent the Seawolves in the MLR.
    "I'm cautiously optimistic, but excited, since we haven't had a sustainable professional league in the US yet," Shepherd tells CNN.
    "This, however, is by far the most sustainable and sound approach to rugby we've seen so far."
    Shepherd is typical of many rugby players in the US, a multi-sport enthusiast who played football, baseball, athletics and wrestling. When the opportunity to play rugby in high school came round, he jumped at it quickly.
    "America just needs rugby," he says. "It's a very unique sports culture ... It could be a great outlet for a lot of youth around the country. I know families and parents are very encouraged by it once they get into it."
    The Seawolves have sold out all 1,800 of their allocated season tickets and the opening game at the 4,000-seat Starfire Stadium will see a full house.
    It was the same location MLS side Seattle Sounders occupied for their inaugural season in 2009. They sold out the venue for every game, and now find themselves sharing with the city's NFL franchise at the imposing CenturyLink Field.
    A promising sign for Seattle's fledgling rugby outfit.
    It might not be too long before the Seawolves also find themselves taking the field in Seattle's biggest sporting arena.