Los Angeles - Major
League Rugby kicks off its second season on Saturday, with an expanded
competition and increasing numbers of overseas players poised to
accelerate the fledgling competition's growth.
One year after seven teams launched the latest attempt to establish
professional rugby in the United States, nine clubs will participate in
the 2019 season which runs from January to June.
The new franchises are Rugby United New York, who include former
England fullback Ben Foden in their ranks, and the Toronto Arrows,
providing the league with a crucial foothold in Canada.
With teams forced to comply with a salary cap reported to be in the
region of $350 000, Major League Rugby does not have anything like the
financial muscle of club competitions in Europe and the Southern
Yet MLR Commissioner Dean Howes is bullish about the prospects for
rugby's growth in a sporting landscape that remains dominated by the
NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.
"I think rugby has the potential to be a top tier sport," Howes told AFP.
"It is a great stadium sport. It's fun to watch.
"It's a great exciting game that's in constant motion. Rugby has the
attributes of a sport that translates very well in person and on TV.
"We just need to convert more people to the sport. And as we expose more people to the sport we will convert them."
Major League Rugby's chances of attracting a new audience will be
given a significant boost this season when CBS television broadcasts the
post-season's championship game on its national network.
"It will give us 10 times the exposure than we've had before," Howes told AFP.
Howes, a former chief executive of the Real Salt Lake football team,
said the rugby competition was aiming to model its development on Major
League Soccer, which has enjoyed two decades of steady growth since its
launch in 1996.
Ultimately, the league hopes to emulate the MLS by attracting top overseas talent to play in the United States.
That remained a long-term goal, Howes said, with the league anxious
to avoid the mistakes of the North American Soccer League, which
attracted the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer during
its 1970s heyday before eventually ceasing operations in 1985.
"We don't want teams going bankrupt," Howes said.
"We have to grow in
inches. We know where we want to get to, and the MLS is a great example
to follow. But remember the MLS is 22 years old.
"We do need to build stars here in the US and at the appropriate
time, bring stars from the international game. We will get there. But
that is an organic, slow growth thing that we don't want to get ahead of
This season, teams will be allowed up to 10 overseas players, a significant increase on the inaugural season.
"The whole purpose of this is to improve our national team," Howes
"So it's the balance of working your domestic players and skill
players and bringing in the right amount of foreign players, which
elevates our technical game."
Early signs are that access to a well-organised, regular professional
competition are already reaping rewards for the US international set
Although heavy defeats to the Maori All Blacks and Ireland last year
served as a reminder that the US Eagles remain a long way from the
international elite, victories over Scotland, Samoa and Romania
suggested improvements are being made.
Significantly, more than half of the starting line-up of the Eagles'
last international in November, a 57-14 defeat to Ireland in Dublin,
were players based in Major League Rugby.
"We feel that one of the great indicators of us doing our job well is
that the national team gets better," Howes said.
"That's what attracts
young kids to stick with the sport."
The performances of the US Eagles in the upcoming World Cup in Japan
could play a key role in boosting interest in the sport, the MLR chief
"It's huge," Howes said.
"It allows us to expose more people in this
country to this sport. The World Cup is going to be a tremendous value