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Thursday, May 30, 2024

From Grassroots to Global Stage: Major League Rugby’s Vision for American Rugby

Major League Rugby match featuring the New England Free Jacks vs Seattle Seawolves
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By — Front Office Sports
Posted — May 15, 2024

A sport steeped in tradition and passion, rugby is celebrating a momentous occasion this year—the 150th anniversary of its first recorded game on United States soil. Despite its rich history in the U.S. dating back to 1874, the sport is experiencing a renaissance, spearheaded by Major League Rugby (MLR).

In its early days, rugby rapidly gained popularity among American athletes and fans, with universities embracing the sport nationwide. The nonstop, full-contact gameplay captivated audiences while demanding exceptional athleticism and unparalleled conditioning from players. Beyond the physical challenges, rugby fostered a deep respect for its traditions and cultivated a strong sense of camaraderie, exemplified by the post match “social,” where opposing teams came together to toast one another and share a meal.

Major League Rugby game featuring Chicago Hounds and Rugby Football Club Los Angeles

Today, American rugby continues to thrive, attracting a growing number of passionate players and fans who appreciate its rich history, intense action, and the enduring sense of fellowship it inspires both on and off the pitch.

Currently in its seventh season, MLR has established itself as the premier professional rugby league in the U.S., boasting an expanding nationwide footprint that has grown from seven teams in 2018 to 12 teams in the ’24 season.

Looking ahead, MLR has ambitious plans to grow the sport in the U.S. and to become the premier rugby competition worldwide. The league is partnering with Sportable and Gilbert to introduce smart ball technology and owns its own OTT platform, The Rugby Network, to provide free access to MLR content and other rugby matches.

Major League Rugby player making a catch

In 2023, MLR secured its most significant commercial deal to date, partnering with global technology leader Globant to feature Globant’s logo on all team jerseys and use its technology to revolutionize The Rugby Network and drive fan engagement. This partnership, along with the support of other top-tier sponsors such as American Airlines, Kappa, RTIC Outdoors, and Beard Guyz, highlights the growing appeal of the U.S. rugby market to major brands.

MLR is also prioritizing fan-centric experiences, creating full-day atmospheres reminiscent of football tailgates and concerts. By telling the stories of its players, MLR is “Americanizing” the sport, creating homegrown superstars with kit sales, trading cards, and social media opportunities.

However, the league’s impact extends far beyond the pitch, with grassroots development initiatives playing a crucial role in nurturing the next generation of players and fans. Imagine Rugby, MLR’s charitable partner, is at the forefront of this effort, developing flag rugby programs in elementary schools across the country. With an ambitious goal of having one million kids playing rugby by 2031, MLR is committed to growing the sport from the ground up.

Major League Rugby match
“Americans are rugby fans; they just don’t know it yet.” – Nic Benson, CEO and Commissioner of MLR

These grassroots initiatives, combined with the league’s focus on showcasing relatable player personalities and positioning rugby as an exciting, affordable, and family-friendly alternative to other sports, are key to engaging new audiences and ensuring the long-term success of rugby in America.

As Nic Benson, CEO and commissioner of MLR, aptly states, “Americans are rugby fans; they just don’t know it yet.”

This sentiment underscores the league’s ambitious plans for growth and expansion, with the goal of reaching 24 teams by the 2031 Rugby World Cup. As part of this growth strategy, MLR has collaborated with USA Rugby and World Rugby to launch the Anthem Rugby Carolina initiative, establishing a new team for the ’24 season.

Major League Rugby player making a catch

Whereas the league’s average player age is 28, Anthem Rugby Carolina is taking a unique approach to building its team, with an average player age of just 23. This strategy is aimed at nurturing and developing young talent, recognizing that the best rugby players in the world often hit their prime in their early- to mid-30s.

These efforts have not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by the United States’ selection as the host nation for the 2031 and ’33 Rugby World Cups—a testament to World Rugby’s trust in the American market and the progress made by MLR in growing the sport at all levels.

Hosting the World Cup will provide an unparalleled platform for the U.S. to showcase its passion for rugby, bringing together the best teams from around the world onto American soil and igniting a new wave of enthusiasm for the sport among U.S. fans.

With Major League Rugby at the helm, rugby is poised for unprecedented growth and success in the United States. The road ahead will require unwavering dedication from players, coaches, fans, and the entire rugby community, but one thing is clear …

This is only the beginning of rugby’s American renaissance.

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Major League Rugby player