Major League Rugby (MLR) commissioner George Killebrew gave a few minutes of his time to talk about MLR to Last Word on Sports. He talked about the present and future of MLR and how it compares to Major League Soccer (MLS).
In this exclusive conversion leading into the launch of the new season, George Killebrew reveals his vision for rugby in 2021 and beyond.
How did you get involved in Major League Rugby and what piqued your interest in the league?
I spent over 25 years in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks, where I worked for Mark Cuban and Mark was a rugby player in college and university. I got to hear all the rugby stories for over 20 years. So, MLR hired a firm to hire a new commissioner. They contacted Mark and Mark came to me and suggested that I got to be doing this. Commercialization of the sport was missing and it is something that I could help them with.
Do you see any similarity with MLR compared to MLS when it first played in 1996?
Just because you know they’re now 25 years old, and some of the things that they’re going through in the early years are similar to the things we are going through currently. I had the pleasure the other day to talk on the telephone with one of their founders. It is interesting, just the problems they were having back then and some of the things that we go through are very simple, but if you look at MLS today, they’re selling their franchises for $250 million for a team to enter their league.
You have to build a soccer-specific stadium, which is probably another $250 million. You know, so you’re in at half a billion dollars, which is a great growth story. I hope there is a similar growth story for Major League Rugby at some point.
I hope it doesn’t take 25 years, I hope it’s quicker than that but there are a ton of similarities. Also, as you know, they are both single-entity leagues. But it was really refreshing talking to Alan Rothenberg, who was one of the brainchild behind Major League Soccer.
I got to spend some time on the phone with him. He’s a wonderful guy and just kind of was asking him what did you guys go through and everything that I told him, he just laughed and said, Oh yeah, I remember that. We went through it too, you’ll get through it here’s how we did it.
What are you most looking forward to in the 2021 MLR season?
It’s going to be a different season. You know, some of our teams are having to relocate like your team in Toronto. So they are just a lot of variances. How we will define a successful year is if on August 1, the day of the MLR championship game, our champions from the east which we’ll say for the sake of this discussion we hope its Toronto and champions from the west, are playing live on CBS television in prime time.
There are going to be a lot of pinch points on the way to that. Every week will be difficult with COVID and everything else, but we can fight through that and get all the way from March 20 when we will begin to crown a champion on August 1, the first national television audience on CBS. Then, I will consider it a great year.
Looking at the Toronto Arrows and the San Diego Legion, what were the processes for both teams to temporarily relocate for the season?
We can’t enter Canada right now, so our visiting teams cannot play a match even if they wanted to. So, Bill Webb and Mark Winokur run that team. You know I give them a lot of props because they’re ready to leave their country to get the season, which shows you how determined our ownership groups are to make this league work and no one is having to go further or work harder than Toronto.
It’s one thing for San Diego to move one state away to Nevada. It’s a whole another thing for a team like Toronto to leave their country and share the facility. I feel bad for both teams. As I said, it shows the determination and really just the guts of these ownership groups to make sure we get a season for them.
How important is the Dallas market, moving ahead as they plan for the season next year?
They’re one of two expansion teams, and to launch an expansion team during a pandemic is really, really difficult. Back to our MLS discussion. You know that all of their expansion teams were put off by a year. They all delayed a year. So, Dallas will launch in 2022. You know, the Dallas and Los Angeles markets were huge milestones for this league. You know those two media markets are two of the top five media markets in the United States as measured by Nielsen. So, now with the addition of these two franchises, we have teams in seven of the top 10 media markets in the United States and so you know you go where the people are.
That’s the thing with big attendances and things like that and now we’ve checked these boxes and the three in the top ten media markets not in MLR. We’re having discussions with each of those cities for the future, whether it be in 22 or 23 or 24.
So, no, it’s a very right kind of expansion horizon. I think Dallas made a good decision. I think it’s really difficult to launch. Their counterparts in Los Angeles took an opposite tact, that they are going to go for. So, you know everyone’s different and neither one’s right or wrong.
Talking about expansion, do you see more teams coming from Canada and/or Mexico? And what is the potential of having a team in Hawaii?
I would love to have a second and a third-team eventually in Canada. Would love to have a team in Mexico and there are groups in all of these places that are talking to us on a pretty regular basis. I think Hawaii is very attractive to this league for a lot of reasons. It’s the gateway to the Pacific and Asia. We’ve seen what rugby has done in Japan. I think a Hawaii franchise would be very successful so you know if we could make a World Cup bid, 2027 or 2031.
My personal preference would be 2031 because of the big events in North America with World Cup soccer, Olympics, all around, 2026 and 2028. So just think about it as we get to 20, let’s just say North America gets the nod for 2031. We add in Major League Rugby one or two teams a year we’ll be a 22-32 team league by the time World Cup comes.
And I fully expect those expansion teams to not just be in the US and we fully expect another team in Canada, preferably even two, even another foray into Mexico. We’ve got close with Hawaii but we have not gotten all the way yet. We need to get the group with Hawaii over the finish line. That would be just a great thing. I think World Rugby would look down upon us and say you’re doing the right thing.
What is the level of Major League Rugby when a player like Asiata from the Toronto Arrows, goes to a Super Rugby club like the Queensland Reds?
We’re not going to go and trumpet it necessarily but anytime a player has been developed within our system is invited to play at a higher level, whether it be for their country or what have you, that is a feather in our cap. That tells you, we’re doing things right in our short three-year history.
And it’s not about transfer fees or anything like that. That will be something in the future that will become very interesting for Major League Rugby, just as it became interesting for Major League Soccer. But it just collaborates the things that we’re laying on the grassroots level with developing talent. And then when that talent is plucked away from you to play at a higher level or for their country or in the Olympics or in a World Cup.
Overview of George Killebrew interview – Part One
George Killebrew expressed many points regarding expansion in the MLR. This includes his vision to have more teams in Canada and his desire to have a team in Mexico. The Hawaii team almost came to fruition but had problems because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With players like Asiata going to the Queensland Reds, it shows the potential professional rugby union has in North America.
In the coming days, part two of this two-part interview will be published. Follow Last Word on Rugby for the 2021 MLR season, like our Facebook page/follow us on Twitter, and join the conversation on the LWOS boards.
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