George Killebrew steps down: his Legacy with Major League Rugby

Now Former MLR Commissioner George Killebrew Steps Down

On Friday, George Killebrew officially stepped down as MLR Commissioner as stated in a Major League Rugby press release. Killebrew was MLR’s second and right now longest-ever serving MLR Commissioner.

Under his leadership, Major League Rugby was able to have sustainable growth and most notably supported the players financially during the difficult COVID-19 times.

Former MLR Commissioner George Killebrew’s Legacy

Of note, during the global pandemic that was the Covid-19 outbreak, former MLR Commissioner, George Killebrew, showed that Major League Rugby is a league that cared for its players.

This is what Killebrew said back in 2021 to Last Word on Rugby during the 2020 MLR season:

“We had to cancel the season after week five of last season.  The Board of Governors voted to pay all the players 100 percent of their salaries as if they played an entire season. This was key obviously for the local players and international players. The messaging about how they were treated by Major League Rugby really really showed our credibility.”

This was probably the best outcomes that happened under Killebrew’s leadership. At that time, people; whether they were on the front lines or not, were suffering a lot and many people were facing great hardships. For MLR to make an exception for the players shows what type of organization Major League Rugby represents.

MLR was also able to play all their games in 2021 without any game cancellations while managing Covid protocols, which Killebrew noted in his interview with Last Word on Rugby last year.

A huge credit of that should go to the Toronto Arrows in 2021, who played the entire MLR season in the states because of the pandemic.

Legacy points: MLR league expansion

George Killebrew was aggressive on MLR expansion. This meant more cities got pro rugby union teams to call their own in North America. This was Killebrew’s vision in Ben Swanger’s D Magazine when the U.S. was awarded the Rugby World Cup in 2031:

“The U.S. was just awarded the 2031 Men’s Rugby World Cup and the 2033 Women’s Rugby World Cup,” Killebrew told D CEO. “So, we have this nine-year runway to get this sport mainstream and make it more of a household name [through] our partnerships. By the time the World Cup lands on our shores, we can be a 28-team league.” (MLR currently has 13 teams.)

Most recently, he was able to get teams in big markets like the Chicago Hounds, Dallas Jackals, and also the Miami Sharks, who start their first-ever MLR season next year. Specifically, getting a team in the mid-west with Chicago was a big deal for MLR as that was one of the voids in the U.S. that Killebrew was able to fill.

TV Deals in the U.S. and the MLR Draft

One of the things Killebrew was able to do was to create good TV deals for the league. For example, Killebrew was able to create some partnerships with Fox Sports. In the first two months of the season, he was able to get six games on Fox Sports, with five of them on FS2 and one of them on FS1. This is the list of games provided by Major League Rugby, which can be seen below, with some of the games already played:

Saturday, February 18: San Diego Legion vs. Utah Warriors, 7:00 PM ET, FS2

Saturday, February 18: Seattle Seawolves vs. New York Ironworkers, 9:30 PM ET, FS1

Saturday, February 25: Houston SaberCats vs. NOLA Gold, 9:00 PM ET, FS2

Saturday, March 11: Chicago Hounds vs. Toronto Arrows, 8:00 PM ET, FS2

Saturday, March 18: Old Glory DC vs. Toronto Arrows, 7:00 PM ET, FS2

Saturday, March 31: Utah Warriors vs. New England Free Jacks, 9:30 PM ET, FS2

Additionally, getting the MLR Collegiate draft to happen was very important to Killebrew as it was “the missing link” upon his arrival as commissioner (source: KRLD NewsRadio 1080). Players from this draft come from post-secondary institutions in Canada and the U.S. The Toronto Arrows, Canada’s pro rugby union, got all their MLR draft picks from Canadian universities for example.

READ MORE: The 2022 Toronto Arrows MLR Draft: What it means for next year?


LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis and no second pro-MLR team in Canada

The only big negative under Killebrew’s tenure might be what happened in the Western Division last year. The LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis both finished with the top two records in the Western Division. However, both teams, who were owned by Adam Gilchrist, were kicked out of the MLR playoffs as Americas Rugby News provided below:

“MLR previously announced the disqualification of the Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis from the MLR Championship Series. Austin’s disqualification is due to the team management’s failure to cooperate with an investigation conducted by the MLR league office concerning potential violations pertaining to player compensation. LA’s disqualification is due to conduct deemed detrimental to the league, which warranted an immediate disqualification from the 2022 MLR Championship Series.”

It was then later confirmed that both teams would not participate in the 2023 MLR seasons. This was very unfortunate as Los Angeles won the MLR Championship Shield in 2021 and Austin was one of the original seven MLR franchises that started play in 2018. This might have been the right decision, but if this matter was caught earlier, this issue would not have affected the MLR playoffs in the Western Conference last year.

The other negative was that he was unable to get a second MLR Canadian team before stepping down. It seems that the process to try and get a team in Vancouver had already started according to KRLD NewsRadio 1080. However, it has still not gotten over the line as of early 2023. This was not a big negative though as this was not fully in Killebrew’s control, however, it is something to note.

Nic Benson and the future of MLR

Nic Benson is now the new CEO of Major League Rugby. This is what MLR said about Benson in their public statement:

“Benson was a key member of the team that developed and launched MLR. He spent four years as Deputy Commissioner before going on to serve as Chief Business Officer at Willow TV and COO for the Utah Warriors.”

The question is what Benson’s vision is and how it compares to Killebrew. For example, what is the plan for MLR expansion? Killebrew was very adamant about expanding MLR to have several teams in North America. Will Benson follow that footprint or is his view on MLR expansion?

No one knows the answer to that question – what is known though is that Killebrew added credibility to MLR as a serious and respectable professional rugby union competition in World rugby context. He showed everyone that MLR cares about its players and played a major role in MLR earning TV contracts in the U.S.

George Killebrew will be greatly missed in the rugby union World, and professionally everyone at Last Word on Sports wishes him the best in his future endeavours.


Photo Credit: courtesy of Major League Rugby