PRO Rugby has me really excited about the way they’re structuring their league and the stated approach to development and club inclusion. I am excited about the future of professional rugby in the U.S. and the comments that really stand out to me are from their Vision statement: “Our mission is to grow the game and provide opportunities for players to train and compete in a full-time high performance environment.” and Player page:
“Our primary goal is to grow and elevate the quality of rugby played in the USA and Canada. We are committed to working with the current clubs to supplement, rather than replace their activities. Current club players will be the foundation of PRO Rugby. Throughout the club season, players based on their individual performance, can move between the PRO Rugby league and the club league —similar to the minor leagues systems within Major League Baseball (MLB)…PRO Rugby will look to help grow the profile of local club programs by hosting 7s games during halftime and providing club sponsorships.”
I hope that they do consider structuring the “minor league” exactly the way MLB has done for nearly the past century as it has been a model of proven success.
The Baseball Model
With regards to structure, development, and minor league affiliations, MLB’s system is damn near perfect and a model PRO Rugby is spot-on to emulate. The National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) are other examples of what an early version of PRO Rugby’s system might look like, but they have significant differences from the MLB model (e.g. owning their affiliates) that would make adopting those structures more financially difficult.
Because of the shared benefit for developing all rugby in the U.S. that PRO Rugby is attempting to achieve, I’ll draw my comparisons to baseball’s model. Considering the current landscape of U.S. club rugby, I believe the MLB structure to be ideal. There are issues to overcome between rugby communities, some that PRO Rugby is likely well aware of, but if I could lock all the powers that be together in a room I wouldn’t let them out until they truly justified why this doesn’t make sense as a solution.
The MLB minor league system (MiLB) has 240 affiliated teams for 30 MLB franchises from coast to coast and 5 foreign countries all with one goal in mind: for the past 85 years they’ve been focused on player development. Now keep in mind as I continue, the model I’m comparing to is nearly a century old, founded not long after we won rugby gold in the Olympics in 1924 (yep, the U.S. is the reigning Olympic rugby champion). So MLB has had decades to perfect the MiLB structure. I believe PRO Rugby, if they can sell this to the current club system, can expedite and match MLB’s growth in less than a single decade. Everyone has to be onboard of course (I’d like to reference my before mentioned locked room scenario for any takers) but history can repeat itself.Before baseball legend Branch Rickey structured the “farm system” as baseball fans know it today, the minor leagues were fractured and disorganized as a whole. Sound familiar?
One other point for those that may not know: MiLB teams are professional organizations who pay their players not on the Major League payroll. They are no different than what many of you may know of as the Independent League teams, but those Independent teams are simply unaffiliated with MLB, having not signed a Player Development Contract (PDC) with a Major League franchise and they, by choice, fail to reap the benefits of affiliation.
PDCs work by outlining payments, player movement, and all issues involving development; it protects the franchises, the affiliates, and the players. They are usually renewed every 2 to 3 years which is why, once and awhile, your favorite local MiLB team changes logos. If the deal is bad for either party they end it or renegotiate.
How This Could Work in PRO Rugby
While there is much speculation and some confirmation regarding PRO Rugby’s “Original Six”, I’m going to take some creative license for my example and use a fictional PRO Rugby franchise based in Chicago and real club teams to explain the baseball model, how it can work, and the potential benefits.
The new PRO Rugby team, the Chicago Northmen RFC have drafted Davenport’s JP Eloff and 39 other college ruggers. With already a full squad of seasoned veterans led by Blain Scully, Andrew Durutalo, and Samu Manoa (hey, it’s my scenario) they need a place to develop their young talent. Good thing they signed a PDC with the local D-II team Chicago Blaze and American Rugby Premiership mainstay Boston Rugby because now those two teams, who already have some paid semi-pro players, get to bolster their roster with professional rugby players with salaries paid by their parent club, PRO Rugby Cup contenders Chicago Northmen.
I think the benefits are obvious. There will be growth of the game as fans of the Northmen seek out the affiliates to follow their future champions, while the clubs get professional level promotion simply through their affiliation. An example from baseball, is that as a Cubs fan I care about the Eugene Emeralds, and I might even by a hat or jersey, simply because of their affiliation with my Chicago Cubs. Additional benefits include player development for both the young pros and the club players they play with and against, as the best way to develop skill is to play and play against tougher opponents. This brings financial relief for smaller clubs because they don’t have to pay all the player salaries, as well as an economic boost as fans come to see the future stars (and buy hats and jerseys). Along with a growing scouting squad for the parent club. Unsigned players who break in at the club level can showcase their abilities against franchise drafted talent; what better way to get discovered?
The more affiliates PRO Rugby franchises have across the country, the wider their scouting network becomes, as they, according to the terms of the PDC, would have exclusive first-signing rights to their affiliates non-drafted players. As PRO Rugby grows financially and expands the number of franchises the more opportunities for semi-pro clubs to affiliate and gain professional status, the more opportunities non-drafted players will have to get noticed, and the more opportunities for overall game development.
So listen up PRP (or any clubs resistant to affiliation): you can continue in the tradition of Independent League baseball, but you should recognize there is a distinct difference between the affiliated Eugene Emeralds and the independent Evansville Otters. And that difference can be defined in millions of dollars.
While it would be a long term goal for U.S. rugby to get there, the near term possibility, is more basic and it appears this may be the approach PRO Rugby is taking.
The fictional Chicago Northmen can gather their team and still sign PDCs with semi-pro clubs with exclusive first-signing rights to expand their scout network and uncover the hidden talent buried on teams like the Portland Pigs, the Nashville Grizzles, and Battleship Rugby of Mobile. Yes, there will be some faith-based agreements made (legally on paper of course, with lots of lawyers) that are banking on future success of PRO Rugby. Players will likely have professional contracts based on their selection to the franchise roster, likely getting paid less when on the affiliates roster unless otherwise agreed to in the player’s contract.
Movement between franchise and affiliate will likely mean these affiliates will be more closely located regionally to the franchises while the franchises will have less influence on the clubs directly. Clubs will maintain much of their independence but in the end I think PRO Rugby will need to expand beyond that and match the widespread affiliation network that exists between MLB and MiLB in order to discover and develop talent in our vast country.
Again, 240 minor league teams in the U.S. and 5 other countries (240 independent business professionals) see the benefit, see the impact this structure has on the game, and in the end if it wasn’t financially beneficial for all involved do you really believe it would be as successful as it is? That last point alone is proof enough that PRO Rugby needs to move towards that system and that the clubs need to buy in early, support the structure, and scream at the top of their lungs “pick me!”
PRO Rugby can succeed but it’s going to take commitment, organization, and compromise by multiple parties to bring the dream to life.