Major League Rugby last week announced a new team for 2021: the LA Giltinis.
The Los Angeles team shares Australian ownership and alcoholic inspiration – it is named for a yet-to-be marketed cocktail – with the Austin Gilgronis, a Texas team who played two seasons in the US professional rugby union competition as the Austin Elite and were also briefly known as the Austin Herd before rebranding this year.
In a statement, MLR commissioner George Killebrew said: “We are thrilled to be welcoming Los Angeles to MLR. LA is an important addition to the league as a major media market and the region has a lengthy rugby history embedded in their culture.”
The same release said: “Ownership of the LA Giltinis will primarily reside with Loyals Rugby, a rugby investment company founded in Australia.”
A Los Angeles expansion team was announced in 2018 but the LA Coast subsequently lost out to Loyals Rugby, which is funded by Adam Gilchrist, an Australian behind the F45 gym business. When Gilchrist stepped in at Austin, MLR owners waived rules against stakes in multiple teams.
Last year, Gilchrist trademarked multiple names for cocktails, among them “Gil Tai”, “Gilacolada”, “Giljito”, “Gilgarita” and “Gilmopolitan”.
“I have the utmost confidence in the LA Giltinis ownership group to lead the team to success, and to provide valuable support for MLR as a whole,” Killebrew said. “Given these uncertain times with the current global crisis, we feel fortunate that MLR is still rapidly growing and being positioned for success in 2021.”
MLR’s 2020 season fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic. USA Rugby, the national governing body, has filed for bankruptcy.
Matt Burgess, chief executive of Loyals rugby, said: “The launch of the LA Giltinis and Major League Rugby in Los Angeles will ensure rugby takes its rightful place among the best entertainment products worldwide. It is our privilege to bring one of the world’s most popular sports to the world’s most prolific entertainment market.”
The MLR release added: “The LA Giltinis will be based in Venice Beach [and] are in discussions with Los Angeles Coliseum to be their home stadium, working with UCLA to develop their high-performance facility and will extend significant investment to youth rugby in the region.”
The Los Angeles Coliseum is home to USC Trojans college football team and was formerly the stage for two NFL teams and the 1984 Olympics. It holds 78,467 people. The Seattle Seawolves and San Diego Legion, MLR’s most consistent crowd-pullers, attract around 4,000.
This week, the Legion announced the former Scotland lock Scott Murray as co-head coach, working with the former US Eagles wing Zack Test. By world standards, the MLR salary cap remains microscopically small. As the league mounts its first college draft, the role of foreign players remains keenly debated.
Rugby United New York, an expansion team in 2019, have employed the former England full-back Ben Foden and France centre Matthieu Bastareaud and recently linked themselves with the former England flanker and captain Chris Robshaw and the former Australia wing Drew Mitchell.
San Diego signed Ma’a Nonu, a double World Cup-winning New Zealand centre, and the South Africa prop Tendai Mtawarira followed his own World Cup win by moving to Washington with Old Glory DC.
In April the Colorado Raptors, a foundation team with their own rugby-specific stadium who reached the first championship game, withdrew from MLR. In a letter to fans and followers, team owner Mike Dunafon said: “Our greater responsibility lies in the development of American players who can go on to win the World Cup for the United States.”
Some observers pointed out that for season three, the Raptors moved to hire former Australia wing Digby Ioane and former All Black three-quarter Rene Ranger.
The Giltinis will be coached by Darren Coleman, with experience in Sydney’s Shute Shield semi-professional club competition, and Stephen Hoiles, a former Waratahs, Brumbies and Wallabies back-rower and Australia sevens coach.
The new operation brings the league back to 12 teams, split into eastern and western conferences. Killebrew, a long-time executive with the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, has said publicly that Dallas will also enter a team in 2021.
The LA Giltinis logo, in powder blue, pink and green, features a rugby ball in place of an olive in a cocktail glass. In some quarters, the Austin Gilgronis rebrand was greeted with concern about naming a team for an alcoholic drink.
As the Guardian reported, “Vassilis Dalakas, professor of marketing at Cal State University San Marcos and visiting professor of sports marketing at San Diego State University, pointed to the apparent dissonance between the Gilgronis’ stated intent to launch youth initiatives and provide a family-friendly atmosphere and the overt link with alcohol.”
This week’s MLR release about LA said: “There will be a non-alcoholic version of the Giltini available for those underage.”
Among MLR fans and followers online and sources who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, the Giltinis name met with bemusement and some anger, tempered with a sense that investment in the league was to be welcomed, particularly at such a difficult time.
One source with back-office experience in the league said: “I think it makes the MLR look unprofessional. All the feedback I’ve gotten is either mocking it or disbelieving.”