What we loved about the fifth installment of MLR
Source: Rugby New York
Five years ago, professional rugby in North America was a dream. PRO Rugby had come and gone, and fans were yearning for the day when a commercially-viable league could come and thrive in the world's best sports market.
Then, out of the shadows, a league was born.
Major League Rugby (MLR) started as a seven-team league when owners came together to combine their passion, capital, and foresight to bring professional rugby to the states for good.
Five years later, the league has weathered unprecedented challenges and exceeded expectations. From ownership changes, a franchise withdrawing, and a lost season to COVID-19, MLR has grown and cemented itself as a viable league and one that will prepare North America for the Rugby World Cup in 2031 (Men's) and 2033 (Women's).
To honor the league's five completed seasons, we are sharing the five things we loved about MLR's 2022 season.
1.) Increase in Many Metrics For the League
Going into the fifth season, MLR was coming off a record year in terms of growth. The question was, could they do it again the following year?
In short, they did.
MLR saw tremendous growth in a few key areas highlighted in the graphic below.
Source: Kimball Kjar - Utah Warriors CEO
Why are these metrics important? For one, the growth in numbers shows that the league is gaining more popularity in North America. Rugby has always been a niche sport in the area and the United States has been nicknamed, "The Sleeping Giant," because of its untapped potential for the game. With an established professional domestic league growing, rugby is finally catching on with the North American sports fan.
Second, the increase in numbers shows the business potential for the league. Startup businesses are risky and require a degree of capital to become very profitable. Startup sports leagues and franchises are incredibly expensive and require investors to see the long-term vision when looking at getting a return on their investment. With this growth, MLR is signaling its current and future investors that the league is getting closer to making them a good return. That return may come slowly, but growth is an indicator that a rich return will come.
MLR is proving to be a growing league that is a viable business. The increase in all categories is the proof. Without growth, MLR would not survive and the prospect of having professional rugby in the United States could be gone forever.
2.) Dallas Jackals Take the Field For First Full Season
Source: Dallas Jackals Rugby
In 2021, MLR was coming off a canceled season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With stricter health regulations and other uncertainties, the Dallas Jackals expansion franchise decided to postpone their inaugural season. Their decision caused many fans to consider if Dallas was ever going to take the field.
In 2022, the Jackals took the field for the first time against the Austin Gilgronis. Later in the season, they played their first match at their home, Choctaw Stadium. The community was ecstatic and immediately embraced the team.
While the team never won a match, the Jackals were competitive in a few games and showed that they were here to stay. Seeing another successful expansion franchise take the field gives us the knowledge that a Tennessee-based team would be a great addition to MLR.
3.) Rugby New York Wins Their First MLR Championship
Rugby New York won the franchise's first MLR championship against the Seattle Seawolves. On June 25, they beat Seattle 30-15 in front of a vibrant crowd at Red Bull Arena, a Major League Soccer stadium in New Jersey. This was the first time an Eastern Conference team had won the final match, and the first time that Seattle had lost a playoff game in its five year history.
New York's victory breathed fresh life into the championship series that had only seen two other franchises win it before in league history. Their win proved the league had parity.
4.) Collegiate Draftees Continue Proving to be Valuable to Teams
The MLR Collegiate Draft was a gamble for the league when they introduced it in 2020. The season had been cancelled and COVID-19 had made the next steps uncertain. To re-engage fans, MLR decided to go ahead with plans on a draft that mimicked other major sports leagues.
Reactions to the league's announcement and implementation of the draft were mixed from fans. Many thought there was not enough high-level American and Canadian talent the professional teams could choose from. However, two years later the draft, and its players, have proven that it has a positive impact on the competition.
MLR Stats put together the graphic below to show the impact of the past draft classes.
Out of the 2021 draft class 24/39 players (61.54%) had at least one cap in the 2022 season. Some notable names include:
Tavite Lopeti (17 matches, 1237 minutes played, 5 tries, 1169 meters run, 2nd Team All MLR, MLR Rookie of the Year, capped USA Eagle at the end of the season)
Connor Burns (10 matches, 558 minutes played, 2 tries, 7 starts)
Emmanuel Albert (13 matches, 306 minutes played, 1 try, 1 start)
Eric Naposki (10 matches, 710 minutes played, 3 tries, 10 starts)
With this past year's draftees playing solid minutes for playoff and other teams, the third draft on August 18 should be exciting for franchises looking to reload for the 2023 season.
The upcoming draft will also feature Tennessee players looking to break into the league. The list includes:
Musa Banat (University of Memphis)
Colby Pearl (Middle Tennessee State University)
Joshua Shelter (University of Tennessee)
Braxton Heard (University of Tennessee)
Gregory Janowick (University of Tennessee)
Only time will tell on which draftees will have the biggest impact for their MLR club in 2023.
5.) First Playoff Match For Founding League Team
The final thing we loved about the 2022 MLR season, was the fact that one of the founding league members made the playoffs for the first time.
The Houston Sabercats were an original team and the first franchise to build a rugby-specific stadium, the second in the United States. With all of their commitment, the team was never able to make the playoffs.
2022 changed that. Due to some disqualifications, the team finally made the playoffs. They hosted the Western Conference Finals at Aveva Stadium where they eventually fell to the Seawolves.
Houston deserved to finally make the playoffs after overhauling the organization prior to the 2022 season. We loved seeing a playoff match at Aveva Stadium and seeing the Houston fans cheer for their team.
With Houston having playoff experience, we look forward to seeing Austin and NOLA, two other founding team, also make the playoffs for the first time.
On to the 2023 Season
The league continues to grow and lay the foundation for rugby to explode in America. Through its increased metrics, first Eastern Conference champion, more draftees playing valuable minutes, an expansion franchise playing its first full season, and a founding member making its first postseason, MLR is ready for another great season in 2023.
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