San Diego gets another shot at pro rugby with new league
The rugby community in San Diego counts itself among the most fervent in the country.
The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club has fielded top amateur sides for decades. Five colleges here have rugby club squads. The sport is growing at the youth and high school level. And both the USA 7s and full national teams have worked at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.
Those are the factors that make a local group of investors believe a professional rugby league and team can find traction here, even if the sport’s last foray in the city two years ago was a financial and public relations disaster.
The San Diego Legion will begin play at USD’s Torero Stadium in late April as one of seven teams in Major League Rugby. The other markets are Seattle, Salt Lake City, Houston, New Orleans, Austin, Texas, and Glendale, Colo. (Denver).
MLR is a single-entity league fashioned with Major League Soccer as its model. Owners paid $500,000 for rights to cities, and the league will distribute a payroll that is capped at $350,000 per team for the season.
The regular season is eight matches — four home, four away — over consecutive weekends from April 22 to June 16, leading into a four-team playoff.
“San Diego has a phenomenal grassroots rugby culture here, and this is a great extension of that. That’s why I wanted to invest,” Ryan Patterson said.
Patterson is a local real estate developer who was recruited to ownership by Matt Hawkins, a South African who became an American citizen, played for the U.S. national team, and has been involved in San Diego’s rugby scene for 16 years.
Patterson’s son began playing rugby at a young age and now competes at the high school level.
“He loves every minute of it,” Patterson said. “It’s a game of equality. It’s an all-athlete game that can’t be duplicated, from my perspective.”
The sport, however, remains far more visible in other parts of the world, and while enclaves of club rugby are very strong in the U.S., the national awareness is still minimal.
“We have a rugby community here,” said Hawkins, who is serving as the Legion’s general manager. “What we need to give the rugby community now is something relevant in San Diego. That’s ultimately a big part of what we’re doing. We’re giving (fans) an opportunity to show their passion for a sport that isn’t mainstream, but together, we can make it relevant.”
Hawkins was an assistant coach on the San Diego Breakers team of the PRO Rugby league that held its inaugural season in 2016. The league of five teams was owned by a single investor, New York financier Doug Schoninger, and he worked out a deal to be the first professional league sanctioned by USA Rugby.
But the relationship quickly soured, and PRO Rugby labored through its first season before Schoninger halted operations in December 2016 — three months shy of paying the players, coaches and executives their full 12-month contracts.
Players and executives in several cities have taken Schoninger to court. Schoninger, who said he invested nearly $10 million in the first season, has blamed USA Rugby for much of his troubles in getting the league off the ground.
Schoninger’s three-year rights deal with USA Rugby expires in April, and though MLR doesn’t yet have a new agreement in place, it expects to conclude a deal soon.
The new league appears to have a few advantages going for it: It has experienced sports leadership in Commissioner Dean Howes; a diverse group of investors; the single-entity model that shares costs; and a national television contract with CBS Sports Network.
The two-year television deal doesn’t involve rights fees, but gives MLR the exposure it needs while providing advertising revenue opportunities. A “Game of the Week” will be shown nationally, while individual markets, including San Diego, are working on deals with cable companies for every game to be televised locally.
“We’re thrilled with that,” Howes said. “To have national carriage in over 60 million homes, it’s on our shoulders.”
Howes, who began his career in pharmaceutical and health care businesses, is a seasoned sports entrepreneur. He was chief executive of Real Salt Lake of MLS, spearheaded the building of that team’s stadium, and also partnered in the ownership of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues.
“Our work is really focused on the future,” Howes said. “What happened in the past — to me, the only relevance there is the ability to see the things you need to do correctly.”
A big proponent of the single-entity model because of how it’s worked for MLS, Howes envisions MLR as a showcase for the best rugby players in America, as well as a league that gives up-and-coming stars room for development.
He also has become a big fan of rugby after having little awareness of it only a few years ago.
Chuckling, Howes said, “My 89-year-old dad watches it all the time, can’t get enough of it, and he didn’t know how to spell rugby two years ago. I think we can count on the young and old to like it.”
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