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Major League Rugby enters season three with ex-Mavericks CRO bringing new vision as commissioner

(Major League Rugby)

  • Former Dallas Mavericks executive George Killebrew has replaced Dean Howes as commissioner
  • Switch to two conferences with arrival of New England Free Jacks, Old Glory DC, and Rugby ATL
  • MLR to open 2020 campaign this weekend in Las Vegas, a potential future target market 

Major League Rugby enters its third season this weekend after an offseason of change designed to strengthen the position of the start-up rugby union competition within the United States sporting landscape.

Most notably, MLR has a new commissioner, with former Dallas Mavericks executive vice-president and chief revenue officer George Killebrew leaving the NBA team and taking over from the ousted Dean Howes in December.

Howes had adopted a slow and steady approach for MLR but team owners reportedly wanted rapid and expansive growth and forced him out.

MLR also has its first chief commercial officer, Jon Persch, a former rugby union player and coach, who previously held the same role at USA Rugby as well as executive positions at Tribeca Enterprises, World Wrestling Entertainment and CAA Sports.

Persch has already made a mark, having helped secure Rhino Rugby as MLR’s official ball and technical training equipment supplier, Paladin Sports as its on-field official kit provider, and Opro as the official mouthguard provider. There have also been additional deals with sports performance technology firms Catapult Sports and Sportsdigita.

MLR is expanding from nine teams to 12 this year with the addition of New England Free Jacks (Boston), Old Glory DC (Washington DC) and Rugby ATL (Atlanta). To ease travel expenses and to build local rivalries, the league has switched to two six-team conferences.

The Western Conference comprises the Seattle Seawolves, Colorado Raptors, San Diego Legion, Utah Warriors, Houston SaberCats and Austin Gilgronis. The Eastern Conference will feature Rugby United New York, Toronto Arrows, Nola Gold (New Orleans) plus the three expansion teams. Each team will play the other teams in their conference home and away, for a total of 10 games, plus six cross-conference games, three home and three away. Following the playoffs, the two conference champions will meet in the MLR final on June 28.

MLR commissioner George Killebrew (Major League Rugby)

There has also been two team rebrands: the Glendale Raptors have become the Colorado Raptors, while Austin Elite changed to Austin Herd and then again to Austin Gilgronis (the AGs). The Gilgronis’ name change is also part of a team ownership change: Loyals LLC, an international rugby investment company based in Australia, has taken immediate control of the Austin franchise and all business operations.

Other MLR teams have gained new outside investment as well. Nola Gold has entered into a cooperation and partnership agreement with French rugby union club ASM Clermont Auvergne, which has acquired a minority stake in the team.

Meanwhile, Rugby United New York (RUNY) recently announced that New Zealand-based private equity investment company Bolton Equities Ltd has acquired a significant minority stake in the team.

MLR is going to Las Vegas for the first time as well. The 36,000-seat Sam Boyd Stadium, which has hosted the international USA Sevens Rugby tournament, will stage New England Free Jacks v RUNY on February 9, as well as four games over the weekend of February 15-16.

There has also been an influx of big-name international signings. They include veteran French center Mathieu Bastareaud and former Australia wing Drew Mitchell (RUNY), New Zealand center Ma’a Nonu (San Diego Legion), New Zealand wing Rene Ranger and Australia back Digby Ioane (Colorado Raptors), and South African Rugby World Cup winner Tendai Mtawarira (Old Glory DC). It has been reported that Australia wing Adam Ashley-Cooper will join Austin, while RUNY is in talks with former England captain Chris Robshaw about joining in 2021.

Last year, MLR had broadcast deals with CBS Sports and streaming service ESPN+, as well as a regional deal with AT&T Sports Networks. This year, the league will continue to be broadcast on CBS and will add matches on cable networks Fox Sports 2 and ESPNews. Further streaming deals are expected, both domestically and internationally, including a renewal with ESPN+.

There is a general understanding within the league that it will take some time for rugby union to cement itself in the US sporting landscape and for the start-up MLR to find its footing. Indeed, RUNY co-owner James Kennedy admitted that the team lost $1.4m in its first season, while there have been reports that the Colorado Raptors have been looking to leave the competition.

But there is also hope, with the likelihood of the Rugby World Cup coming to the US in 2027 or 2031, that MLR can become a success in the long term. Already two expansion teams have been confirmed for 2021, in Dallas and Los Angeles, while six further groups have expressed interest in joining MLR, possibly in Las Vegas, Miami and Chicago.

Killebrew spoke to SportBusiness this week about the league’s off-season changes and long-term goals.

What attracted you to the role of Major League Rugby commissioner?
The team owners of Major League Rugby, when they decided to search for a new commissioner, used a search firm here in the US called Turnkey Search. I’ve known the person who runs Turnkey for many, many years. I was in the same job for about 27 years so he would call me, but the joke was that I would never leave Dallas or [Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban. But I went to New York and met with five or six of the team owners, I listened to their vision and ultimately when they offered me the position I was all for it because I just feel like the upside is really great for this sport and this league in the US and in Canada.

What were the circumstances that led to a vacancy in the commissioner role at the league?
I don’t really know, I didn’t really want to delve into that. In every professional sports league in their infancy in the US there is a lot change in the beginning, there are a lot of growing pains, franchises that come and go, and that’s just the nature of the business. For Major League Rugby moving into its third year, I was really, really impressed with some of the things that have already occurred. It had a pretty extensive broadcast package with CBS Sports Network, which for a fledgling league in year two was really impressive. The group of owners were very much pioneers, they were going to fight forward and it’s just the nature of professional sports and professional sports leagues that there are changes in the early years.

What do the owners want from you as commissioner?
They looked around and felt like the quality of rugby was in good shape. But maybe what was missing was maybe some grassroots sports business acumen: it’s ticket sales, local sponsorship sales, local broadcast agreements, team marketing, social media, game presentation…different basic [initiatives] that professional teams really have to pay attention to. Maybe if this league was missing anything it was in those areas, the commercialization of the game and around the game.

What impact do you think the three expansion teams will have?
I think they will have a big impact mostly because a lot of these new ownership groups that have come in have paid very high franchise fees to get here. So they’re very serious, they’re well capitalized, and I’m very impressed with the quality of the owner of these new franchises. They see the opportunity to get in on the ground level of something and they’ve seized the opportunity and made the most of it. The teams in DC and Boston are top of the list in terms of ticket sales and things like that. DC has a robust broadcast agreement with NBC Sports Washington so it’s great to see these expansion teams taking things seriously and running things professionally.

How do you think the arrival of the likes of big-name signings Mathieu Bastareaud will boost TV ratings, attendances, social media engagement and so on?
The big-name international players help give us attention and help put us on the map. But the make-up of our rosters needs to be a balance of US- and Canada-grown players, coupled with these international players, that raises the bar for everybody. Part of our mission is to train rugby players in the US and Canada to become professional players. Hopefully these big-name players will help in the development of the local players as well.

(Credit: Rugby United New York)

A number of clubs have recently gained investors, particularly from abroad – what’s happening here?
What people are realizing is that the United States and Canada is a huge opportunity for rugby that hasn’t been exploited to the utmost at this point. Some of these international clubs that have made investments in our local clubs are sharing best practices in terms of coaching and the business side. It’s almost like getting a big brother to help you grow and maximize your opportunities.

RUNY has expressed plans to take some league games overseas, is this something you are in favor of?
Maybe eventually, but the message to our clubs is maximize your local games, make sure they are well-attended, make sure they are great events, make sure they are well televised with good broadcast partners. Our domestic issues are the ones we’re going to focus on now. Day one stuff is to make sure all 12 of our teams are working on all cylinders in their games in their own stadiums.

What are the league’s expansion plans at present?
Dallas and Los Angeles will be our 2021 partners. We want to be cognisant that the player pool is big enough so that when we do expand that there isn’t a drop in talent. We will look to expand to the right cities in 2022 and I’ve spoken to no fewer than six groups who are interested. What we’re looking at is that they can check three boxes: 1) they’re well capitalized; 2) they have a great stadium plan that can go from 5,000 up to possibly 20,000 seats; and 3) they are great sports business operators.

You worked with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for many years: is he going to get involved in the Dallas team at all?
Mark is a huge rugby fan, he played rugby at Indiana University, but he is not the owner in Dallas. He’s watching Major League Rugby for sure and he’s a really big fan right now.

Why are you opening the 2020 season in Las Vegas? 
The weather at this time of year around the country is questionable and we also wanted to try this as Las Vegas had a lot success with rugby sevens for years. We felt like there are some fans are there and we think some fans will want to travel there as it’s a fun city. So we’re doing five matches across two weekends in Las Vegas to see how it goes. The early signs have been pretty good. And Las Vegas is one of the cities that has shown interest in possible having a team in Major League Rugby, though not in a formal way.

Given reports last year the Colorado Raptors were thinking of leaving MLR, how committed is the franchise to the league?
What I will say is that they’ve been a great partner and I hope they are with us forever, but if you look at the history of all professional sports leagues in this country there is franchise movement in the early years. We hope that is not the case but it may be.

What are your long term goals for MLR? Where would you like to see the league in five or 10 years’ time?
I would hope the number of franchises continues to grow, I hope we start to really fill our stadiums and grow really robust television audiences. I hope we attract great marketing partners on the commercial side and I hope that we do things that lead international rugby organizations to think that they should bring the Rugby World Cup to the United States in 2027 or 2031. I hope that each year that we are taking those steps so it becomes a really natural [move] to land the World Cup at some point.

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