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Professional rugby taking root in US ahead of new season

One year after seven teams launched the latest attempt to establish professional rugby in the United States, nine clubs will participate in the 2019 season which runs from January to June.

The Houston SabreVats take on the Glendale Raptors in a Major League Rugby warmup game. Picture: @Hou_Sabercats/Twitter

NEW YORK – Major League Rugby kicks off its second season on Saturday, with an expanded competition and increasing numbers of overseas players poised to accelerate the fledgling competition's growth.

One year after seven teams launched the latest attempt to establish professional rugby in the United States, nine clubs will participate in the 2019 season which runs from January to June.

The new franchises are Rugby United New York, who include former England fullback Ben Foden in their ranks, and the Toronto Arrows, providing the league with a crucial foothold in Canada.

With teams forced to comply with a salary cap reported to be in the region of $350,000, Major League Rugby does not have anything like the financial muscle of club competitions in Europe and the Southern Hemisphere nations.

Yet MLR Commissioner Dean Howes is bullish about the prospects for rugby's growth in a sporting landscape that remains dominated by the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball.

"I think rugby has the potential to be a top tier sport," Howes told AFP. "It is a great stadium sport. It's fun to watch.

"It's a great exciting game that's in constant motion. Rugby has the attributes of a sport that translates very well in person and on TV.

"We just need to convert more people to the sport. And as we expose more people to the sport we will convert them."

Major League Rugby's chances of attracting a new audience will be given a significant boost this season when CBS television broadcasts the post-season's championship game on its national network.

"It will give us 10 times the exposure than we've had before," Howes told AFP.

Howes, a former chief executive of the Real Salt Lake football team, said the rugby competition was aiming to model its development on Major League Soccer, which has enjoyed two decades of steady growth since its launch in 1996.

GROWING BY INCHES

Ultimately, the league hopes to emulate the MLS by attracting top overseas talent to play in the United States.

That remained a long-term goal, Howes said, with the league anxious to avoid the mistakes of the North American Soccer League, which attracted the likes of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer during its 1970s heyday before eventually ceasing operations in 1985.

"We don't want teams going bankrupt," Howes said. "We have to grow in inches. We know where we want to get to, and the MLS is a great example to follow. But remember the MLS is 22 years old.

"We do need to build stars here in the US and at the appropriate time, bring stars from the international game. We will get there. But that is an organic, slow growth thing that we don't want to get ahead of ourselves on."

This season, teams will be allowed up to 10 overseas players, a significant increase on the inaugural season.

"The whole purpose of this is to improve our national team," Howes said. "So it's the balance of working your domestic players and skill players and bringing in the right amount of foreign players, which elevates our technical game."

Early signs are that access to a well-organised, regular professional competition are already reaping rewards for the US international set up.

Although heavy defeats to the Maori All Blacks and Ireland last year served as a reminder that the US Eagles remain a long way from the international elite, victories over Scotland, Samoa and Romania suggested improvements are being made.

Significantly, more than half of the starting line-up of the Eagles' last international in November, a 57-14 defeat to Ireland in Dublin, were players based in Major League Rugby.

"We feel that one of the great indicators of us doing our job well is that the national team gets better," Howes said. "That's what attracts young kids to stick with the sport."

The performances of the US Eagles in the upcoming World Cup in Japan could play a key role in boosting interest in the sport, the MLR chief added.

"It's huge," Howes said. "It allows us to expose more people in this country to this sport. The World Cup is going to be a tremendous value to us."