Capitalizing on rugby’s international popularity has long been elusive at the commercial level in the United States. An American sports market long saturated with both mainstream and niche sports has been resistant to adding yet another professional organization. Changing demographics and a souring outlook on America’s sporting giants in recent years means that rugby’s time has come. Major League Rugby, the first commercially viable professional rugby league in the country’s history, has arrived with a splash in 2018, and is poised to become the predominant rugby force in the world’s last untapped major market. The American rugby gold rush is on.
With a ten-year history, rugby specific facilities, and exceptional international and domestic talent, the Glendale Raptors are the model of a successful American rugby franchise. Building on that model, and as the inaugural MLR season continues to unfold, plans are already underway across the continent for expansion. 2018’s seven-team league, in addition to the Raptors, includes representatives from Houston, Austin, San Diego, New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. Already confirmed as a 2019 expansion team is Rugby United New York, guaranteeing league growth in its second season. A Dallas team is reported to be joining MLR next season as well, and a Washington, D.C. squad has announced they will join the league no later than 2020. Rumored interest from Atlanta, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, as well as from Canadian teams in Vancouver and Ontario is also circulating.
Indicative of the success of MLR is the international attention the league is receiving. Reporting from Ireland, England, Australia, and other rugby strongholds reveals that the novel American venture is on the brink of unlocking the promised land. Recognizing that the road to that hallowed space may be long, the going slow, MLR Commissioner Dean Howes remains optimistic, saying of MLR that “It’s at least the start of a new future.” Major League Rugby’s successful negotiation of media deals with CBS Sports Network, AT&T, Cox Communications, and ESPN+ for the inaugural season has demonstrated the growing interest in the sport, and delivered the action to growing national and international audiences.
With a robust and dedicated fan base already in place, the Raptors (and the league) are primed for expansion. With MLR enjoying success in its first year of operation, many, as with any business venture, are looking at the bottom line. Sponsorship is a powerful force in maintaining that bottom line, and aside from the league-wide media deals with big name broadcasting distributors, MLR – and the Raptors – have secured partnerships with some seriously recognizable household brands. Partnering with local Glendale businesses, the Raptors enjoy a fruitful relationship with official hotel sponsor Hampton Inn & Suites, and with Colorado-based financial institution Westerra as the team’s official credit union. Denver-based Arcanum Sports Performance, producing a line of activated hemp recovery products, has also signed on for a multi-year partnership with the Glendale side. Bringing on international brands like Irish whiskey maker Tullamore Dew further legitimizes Glendale’s presence as a preeminent one in American rugby. A recent partnership with two-and-a-half century old Guinness beer – a name virtually synonymous with rugby – further proves that the Raptors are indeed the face of the sport in the states.
Growth is on the minds of many watching MLR, even as the inaugural season draws to its exciting conclusion. Glendale will play host to the league semifinals on June 30, with matches at Infinity Park deciding which of America’s professional rugby teams will compete for their first championship title. The top four teams in the league will gather in Glendale, competing in a double header that kicks off at 5pm Mountain Time. Winners of each match will then travel to San Diego on July 7 for the first ever, American professional rugby championship. Capitalizing on the largely untapped American commercial rugby market, the sky is the limit for Major League Rugby and the Glendale Raptors.