Major League Rugby will kick-off its fourth season on 20 March 2021, the league commissioner has told the Guardian, with 13 teams and contingency plans in place should Covid-19, which forced the cancellation of season three after five games, force another change of course.
“We would be fine,” George Killebrew said, “if God forbid we did not play this next season, which I think we will in some format.”
The format announced on Tuesday by the US pro rugby union competition will feature 16 regular-season games before playoffs and a championship game on 1 August, broadcast by CBS. Fixtures, including the first games for the LA Giltinis and Dallas Jackals expansion teams, are yet to be determined. Fox Sports 2 and local platforms will also show games.
Asked if plans were in place to alter the schedule or move players into “bubble” environments should the pandemic demand it, Killebrew, a former executive with the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise, said: “I don’t think anyone can say they’re fully confident, you know, but our advantage is we’re watching in real time college football in the United States with the NCAA. We’re watching the NFL. We’ve learned from the NBA and the NHL.
We do have in our back pocket a reduced season plan, we have a bubble planGeorge Killebrew
“Taking best practices from all that, our advantage is we’re able to sit back and watch for a while. We have a Covid task force here at Major League Rugby that includes our chief medical officer and representation from all across the league. And we meet every week and we talk about what’s happened the week before.
“We’re the beneficiary of not really having to go face-to-face until mid- to late March, so we’ll continue to monitor it throughout the fall and winter. We do have contingency plans, our intent is to get in 16 matches, but we do have in our back pocket a reduced season plan, we have a bubble plan that we’re going to keep in our back pocket until we need it.”
The Los Angeles team (whose name prompted no little consternation among American rugby lovers) and Dallas have begun to recruit for a season that will see six teams in the eastern conference and seven in the west. The odd number is down to the withdrawal of the Colorado Raptors, a foundation team which withdrew in April, reportedly over rising costs and disagreements within the ownership group.
This month, a Hawaii team which announced ambitious plans to enter in 2021 with backing from a group of ex-All Blacks said it would not do so after all.
“It’s not gonna be Hawaii,” Killebrew said, “which is sad because I would have really enjoyed to continue the ability for this league to spread out. We obviously have a team in Toronto. If you look down the line as we grow, it’d be great to have an additional team – or teams – in Canada, and be great to have an additional team in Hawaii, it’d be great to possibly expand to South America in time.”
A statement posted to Facebook by Kanaloa Hawaii, questioning the financial viability of MLR and its Covid readiness, was withdrawn, but not before stoking rumours around the US game that the league is in need of financial injections.
The Guardian can confirm, both from sources around the league and documents obtained, that the entrance fee for an MLR expansion team is now $10m, with $15m in assets expected also to be in place. The same sources said a Chicago team was close to being announced.
It has been a deeply uncertain year for rugby in America, with governing body USA Rugby emerging from bankruptcy to announce steps towards a bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2027 or 2031, backed by MLR owners.
Killebrew pointed to the decision to pay players in full after season three ended early.
“I believe we’re one of the only professional leagues in sports that voted to pay all of their players their full salaries as if we played an entire season. And that was important for two reasons. One, I give credit to our owners because it was their decision. It shows kind of the financial health of our league and our ownership group.
“Two, it was important that a lot of our international players went home and said, ‘I gotta tell you, we were really treated properly by Major League Rugby, we took a risk, we went over and played we only got five matches out of 16, but they paid us our full wages.’ And that’s a real dividend.”
The league held a short college draft in June while former England captain Chris Robshaw has signed to play in San Diego next year, where the Legion, beaten finalists in 2019, will also employ the England coach Eddie Jones in a consultancy role. Matt Giteau is among former Wallabies linked with the LA team – and to have played down such reports.
The Giltinis and the Austin Gilgronis, formerly the Elite and the Herd, are owned by Adam Gilchrist, a relocated Australian who made his money through the F45 fitness business. The MLR salary cap remains low in world terms and definitive announcements from LA have been thin on the ground. Contacted by the Guardian, a Giltinis representative said announcements were forthcoming.
Killebrew said Gilchrist, “is one of our strongest owners. Not only is he financially capable to own two teams, he’s also steadfast in that he loves this and he’s as enthusiastic about Major League Rugby as anybody.”