‘Seismic shifts will happen’: US pro rugby league MLR loses teams but looks to future

<span>The New England Free Jacks, in white, contest a lineout with the NOLA Gold, in February 2023.</span><span>Photograph: Stephen Lew/USA Today Sports</span>
The New England Free Jacks, in white, contest a lineout with the NOLA Gold, in February 2023.Photograph: Stephen Lew/USA Today Sports

At the end of 2023, in little more than week, Major League Rugby lost two teams. First the Toronto Arrows, the sole Canadian team, then the New York Ironworkers, champions in 2022, ran out of money and options.

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For Alex Magleby, a US Eagles flanker turned co-founder and chief executive of the New England Free Jacks, the reigning MLR champions, losing Toronto and New York proved “traumatic”.

“Seismic shifts will happen again in the league,” Magleby says. “They’re going to happen if we learn anything from history in other sports leagues. It’s a highly risky long-term asset play, right?”

Right. So, some may argue, is World Rugby’s decision to put the 2031 men’s World Cup in the US. From Dublin to Dallas, though, no one ever said establishing rugby union in a saturated US market would be remotely easy.

In MLR, salaries are low, facilities sometimes basic and away games often a very long way away indeed. This is frontier rugby. The league has completed six seasons, three since 2020 was lost to Covid. The Seattle Seawolves, champions in 2018 and 2019, are contenders still. But the champions of 2021 (Los Angeles Giltinis) and 2022 (New York) have folded; teams in Glendale, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, are also gone; and a third eastern team, previously based in Atlanta, lost its owner and was moved to LA.

“It’s long term,” Magleby says, of the commitment required, in his case in partnership with Errik Anderson, a biotech investor, to make an MLR team work. “Feeding fandom is really expensive. Building communities that are really excited to be a part of the experience and the brand and the game takes time.

“We don’t have that bedrock of participation to lean on, so we’re trying to do something rapidly. So that does cost money and things shift and people’s families and their assets and how they want to spend those dollars change. So collapses do happen, and hopefully it doesn’t happen again, but you never know.

“I’m glad the league responded and a lot of those players [from Toronto and New York] were able to continue in the league” with other teams.

“That must have been really hard. It was unknown for everybody. The league worked really hard to keep both those entities moving forward and they were just exhausted.”

This weekend, 12 teams will start a 16-game regular season preceding play-offs and a championship game in July. There are world-famous names: the great Australia back Matt Giteau is still playing, at 41 and with the San Diego Legion, and Ma’a Nonu, a great All Black centre, is the same age and with the same club. Magleby’s Free Jacks beat the Legion in last year’s championship game but begin their title defence on Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina, against a new opponent: Anthem RC, a fascinating joint project between MLR, USA Rugby and World Rugby.

Investment to develop talent in lower-ranked nations is not a new idea. Details and structures vary but Super Rugby is home to the Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika while the Rugby Europe Super Cup has given the likes of Georgia and Portugal a way to develop pro players at home. To its great cost, US rugby knows how effective such work can be: most of the Portuguese team that knocked the Eagles out of the last World Cup then shone in France played for Lusitanos in the Super Cup.

The Anthem project was confirmed very late in the day, after MLR announced an 11-team, single-ladder season. Now the league is back to 12 teams in eastern and western conferences, the Miami Sharks a second new challenger in the east, Anthem largely fielding American talent drafted from other teams.

Magleby says: “Taking away the fact it’s a team coming in late, it’s important that the Anthem concept, that USA Rugby, World Rugby and a professional entrepreneurial league came together and made it work, is a success.

“Whether the team produces Eagles of the future, time will tell. We know we will have players on the field who may not have gotten the immediate reps in Major League Rugby, and now they’re going to have those reps. As long as we’re patient with those athletes and give them those opportunities, there’s no reason to think year after year of production of players that are American eligible isn’t going to feed into a better MLR and therefore could help create a better national team. I think the pieces are there for that to happen.”

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On Sunday, Anthem’s young Americans will take on New England’s mix of domestic talent and imports, a squad led by the fly-half Jayson Potroz, last year’s MLR player of the year from Taranaki in New Zealand. Young Free Jacks are among US talent with Anthem.


The 2031 World Cup looms over it all. Magleby says: “A World Cup in the United States will be very successful. You need just over 3 million fans, I think, to make it monetarily successful. There’s no reason that more than 50% of those people won’t come from overseas. The soccer World Cup in 1994 is a good case study … Americans know to know how to host sporting events and World Rugby is very good at controlling that product.

“So I have full confidence that there’ll be a very successful World Cup, regardless of what happens in the US over the next seven years. The word now here is investing significant money in creating that American fandom [and] we’re seeing year-over-year growth, doubling numbers from the previous year, which is very cool.”

Other teams have bigger homes – San Diego share Snapdragon Stadium, which can hold 35,000, the Dallas Jackals have Choctaw, a ballpark seating 48,000. The Free Jacks can only fit 5,000 into Veterans Memorial in Quincy, Massachusetts, but they will again work as hard as anyone on fan festivals, themed events, youth games and other ways to build a lasting business.