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In Its Second Year, Major League Rugby Focused On The Long Haul

Major League Rugby Commissioner Dean Howes is optimistic and focused on a long and sustained growth for the second-year league.

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A long, sustained growth is in the cards for Major League Rugby.

The league is avoiding a big splash before disappearing by staying close to earth with expectations, commissioner Dean Howes said.

The league started last year with a truncated, 31-game season with seven teams and has nine teams for a 75-game 2019 season, but by 2022 there’s likely to be 16 teams, Howes said. Until then, when the league hits a wide enough market reach to have true success, Howes said the league will continue to build itself slowly across the nation.

READ MORE: The US Rugby Players Association and Its Goals for the Future of the Game

“It’s in your partners and your expectations,” said Howes, who has previous management experience with Real Salt Lake and the St. Louis Blues. “You have to know what can spend and can’t spend and have realistic expectations you can and can’t drive. No league has reached its full stride in a season, or five or 10.

“Major League Soccer is extremely successful, but it is still just hitting its full stride and is 20 years into it.”

With slow and deliberate growth, Howes believes Major League Rugby can grow into another major sports league in the United States. The league already has teams in Austin, Texas; Denver; Houston; New Orleans; New York City; San Diego; Seattle; Salt Lake City; and Toronto. Teams are lined up for the next two seasons in Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Dallas, with potentially two or three to be added.

The league and teams are a single entity, like the MLS, not a franchise model. Operators of the teams are also owners within the league.

By the end of this year, Howes said each of the nation’s major media markets, save for maybe Chicago, will be filled with teams. Once all those teams are playing, he believes there will be enough market coverage for the league’s media packages to be relevant. Beyond media deals, the relevancy within markets is important in building fanbases. There is already a robust club level of rugby across the country, the middle ground soccer was missing. But unlike the base MLS had, youth rugby needs to be built up.

“You have to be balanced across the country,” he said. “We need to focus on being relevant not just in major markets, but within those markets. Ann evidence of success comes with how we penetrate those markets, how we help build the sport out that’s how it will grow.”

Currently, there are TV deals in place with ESPN, CBS Sports Network and AT&T Sports Networks. To secure those deals, Howes said he had to sell the overall vision of the league’s future.

“All of the TV partners want good content and I think this is great content,” he said. “They need inventory and we need exposure. As long as we can continue to grow with them and not overpromise and underdeliver we can stay within those partners.”

It has many of the factors Americans like in their sports, he said, like high-scoring affairs and easily countable states. And for Howes, a self-proclaimed sports fan who can find something about all sports to enjoy, rugby converts easily to TV, unlike some other sports. Unlike the necessary wide angles for some sports to track balls and pucks, rugby telecasts can get minor details.

“People will like it in stadium and on TV,” he said. “You see them with bumps and bruises and sweat.  It’s a physical game and you see all of that. If you can get people to watch and understand, like any sport,  you start converting them.”

As the TV partners seem to understand the vision, Howes said foundational partners are key to the growth of the league as well.

“In the world of sports, your first sponsors are those you’re doing business with, those people literally getting value from you and your business,” he said. “As you grow and become stronger, then you reach out into those partners who love you because of sheer brand strength.”

Rugby is an international sport with plenty of room for growth in North America, much like the MLS had with soccer. European rugby leagues are already looking at North American cities, according to a BBC article suggesting teams in New York and Toronto for England’s Rugby Football League.

“Obviously the other leagues want to keep an eye on us, what we’re doing and want to participate in the appropriate markets,” Howes said. “We have the most headroom for growth and we’re the largest economic country in the world.”

READ MORE:  Major League Rugby Partners with CBS Sports Network

Howes knows that growth will take time, even just to get a foundation set for future growth. He’s not planning to rush it.

“We have the passion to say this sport deserves to be amongst the other major leagues,”  he said. “We need to be able to say this is what it takes to sustain this thing for five years or 15 years.

“We’re in it for the long-haul and funded and structured for the long-haul.”

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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Kyrie Irving Expected to Sign with Roc Nation

Kyrie Irving is expected to sign with Roc Nation, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

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Kyrie Irving is expected to sign with Roc Nation, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation.

Irving, who was most recently repped by Jeffrey Wechsler of 24/7 Sports Management, joins an NBA client roster at Roc Nation that includes the likes of Kevin Durant, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow, Danny Green and Caris LeVert.

The switch in representation comes on the same day that Irving took the first step toward his prospective free agency this summer.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Irving is not opting into his $21.3 million contract for the 2019-20 season and will become an unrestricted free agent.

By not opting into his contract, Irving can sign with any NBA team when free agency opens on Sunday, June 30th.

If he signs with a team other than the Celtics, he will be eligible to sign a max deal worth $139 million over four years.

If he were to stay with the Celtics, Irving can sign a five-year deal worth $188 million.

An industry source speculated that Roc Nation could be waiving the fees on Irving’s contract in order to retain his marketing rights.

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Meet the WNBA’s New Boss

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will become the first commissioner of the WNBA and the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

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*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

For the first time ever, the WNBA will have a commissioner. Before now, all of the league’s previous leaders like Val Ackerman and Lisa Borders were given the title of president. 

Cathy Engelbert, the current CEO of Deloitte, will take control of the role on July 17th and will report directly to Adam Silver. 

What should you know?

1. By the time she is done at Deloitte, Engelbert will have spent more time at the company (33 years) than the WNBA has been a league (23 years)

2. Engelbert is the first female to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

3. She is the fifth person to lead the league after Val Ackerman (1997-2005), Donna Orender (2005-10), Laurel Richie (2011-15) and Lisa Borders (2016-2018)

4. Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte’s U.S. operation.

Basketball is in her blood…

Although she might be an accountant by trade, Engelbert is no stranger to the game of basketball. 

According to Bob Hille of Sporting News, she played at Lehigh for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and was a team captain as a senior. Her father Kurt also played and was drafted in 1957 by the Pistons.

What are they saying?

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth. The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.” – Adam Silver on the hiring of Engelbert

“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly.” – Engelbert to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel

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Adam Silver Wants More Gender Diversity

The NBA commissioner states his desire to get more women into the sports industry. The NBA currently has a 31.6 percent ratio of women in team management.

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*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

If Adam Silver has his way, 50 percent of the new incoming NBA officials will be women.

That number applies to coaches too, Silver said speaking at the Economic Club of Washington.

How do the leagues stack up?

The following numbers, outside of MLB, come from 2018 reports put together by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. MLB is the first league to have a report done on it this year.

1. NBA – 31.6% of team management are women / 37.2% of team professional admins are women

2. NFL – 22.1% of team senior admins are women / 35% of team professional admins are women

3. MLB – 28.6% of team senior admins are women / 26% of team professional admins are women

4. MLS – 26.5% of team senior admins are women / 31.6% of team professional admins are women

5. WNBA – 48.6% of team VPs and above are women / 58% of team managers to senior directors are women

6. NHL – No report done

Quotes from Silver… 

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”

“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

That’s not all Silver wants to see change…

Silver, who has been adamant about getting rid of the one-and-done rule, provided some clarity as to when that might be achieved.

According to the commissioner, the 2022 NBA Draft will likely be the first one since the 2005 NBA Draft to allow high school players to go straight into the league rather than playing a season in college first.

Citing “active discussions” with the NBPA, Silver noted that they are still “a few years away.”

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