'I am horrified... what it does to the national team is catastrophic'
The feel-good factor around American rugby after winning the right to stage the men’s Rugby World Cup tournament in 2031 and the women’s Cup two years later has disappeared with what former USA Eagles head coach Gary Gold calls the “horrific” loss of New York from Major League Rugby.
Rugby New York are the sixth team in six years to be lost by the MLR competition which is supposed to provide the sport with a much-needed show window in North America where it is a minor attraction. Gold believes the impact of these setbacks on the Eagles national team will be “catastrophic”, as it limits the pool of players available to the selectors from franchises featuring numerous “overseas” players.
When America won the Rugby World Cup staging rights, Ross Young, USA Rugby chief executive, described the decision as a “paradigm-shifting catalyst for the growth of our sport, not only here in the United States but around the world.”
That growth has dramatically stalled with the loss of Toronto Arrows and Rugby New York in quick succession leaving the MLR with 10 teams for the coming season. The loss of New York has been so sudden they are still listed on the MLR website and the affected players and their families have been left facing serious financial worries.
There are still projections the 2031 men’s tournament will break all records for income for World Rugby but with the demise of so many MLR teams, the tournament will likely rely on incoming fans to create an atmosphere in the grounds. Patently, like professional rugby in England where Wasps, London Irish and Worcester folded last season, the sport cannot pay its way and relies on investors to pick up the losses.
The USA and neighbours Canada both failed to qualify for the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France with Gold leaving his role as Eagles head coach and he is now defence coach with the Bulls franchise based in Pretoria, who take on Saracens in the Investec European Champions Cup on Saturday. Gold still has strong links with the American game and has real concerns over the way the MLR is being run given the number of clubs who have left the league.
Gold said: “I am completely shocked about the loss of Rugby New York as this is a club I was under the impression – although I am not at the coal face – was financially sound. They were champions two years ago and then they moved to a new stadium and I popped into see a couple of their guys in March and there didn’t seem to be an issue. I am horrified and very sad for the management and players.
“There is a bigger picture here because that’s six MLR clubs who have left the league in six years and that is ridiculous. The domino effect of what it does to the national team is catastrophic.
“A year ago we were in Dubai trying to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in France and I got wind of the fact that the MLR had called a Zoom call at 2 am in the morning Dubai time to discuss with the players from Austin and LA who didn’t have clubs anymore. That is why I have some big questions about how things are being run and it is not helping the national game.
“After Covid-19 we had a depth chart showing available players for the national team in the MLR which showed that in certain positions at clubs there wasn’t an American qualified player in the squad. That can’t be the case and if Ireland with four teams can get it right surely America can.”
Rugby New York joined franchises in Atlanta, Toronto, Austin, Los Angeles and Denver in leaving the MLR for various reasons casting a shadow over the league. Atlanta exited the league announcing plans to relocate to Los Angeles for the 2024 season under a new ownership group.
Founding members Seattle Seawolves issued a statement after the loss of New York trying to change the narrative claiming they were preparing for an “exhilarating 2024 season.”
Worryingly for USA rugby, the Colorado Raptors based in Denver, the heart of American rugby with excellent facilities, quit MLR to join Super Rugby Americas, a seven-team Pan-American competition including teams from Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
The shock of losing Rugby New York (RNY) came barely a week after Toronto Arrows announced they were closing up shop and wouldn’t play in the 2024 MLR season. Unlike Toronto, the demise of New York is not related to the tragic death of a majority owner. New York is the second former champion club to depart the league, following the expulsion of LA Giltinis in 2022.
Both Austin and LA were owned by Adam Gilchrist, co-founder of the F45 gym franchise. MLR discovered irregularities in the accounts and disqualified the Austin Gilgronis from the postseason, and the same penalty was then levied against the Giltinis. Austin were one of seven teams that competed in the inaugural 2018 MLR campaign.
RNY had several ownership groups since their founding with the most recent major funders, Bolton Equities pulling the plug. Bolton Equities bought into RNY after the group was required to sell their stake in the Blues, Auckland’s Super Rugby franchise.
Gold said: “The English Premiership dropped the salary cap and received loans during the pandemic so at least they are doing things and it’s not the same as a start-up league like the MLR.
“USA rugby are not involved in any official capacity with MLR – because we were involved in a lawsuit (after filing for bankruptcy) when they started. They are selling franchises for $8-10m dollars. I am not pointing fingers at anyone because I am not a rugby administrator and while I know money is hard to come by and there isn’t a significant TV deal, surely when you sign an owner up you have to get a guarantee or some insurance against someone walking away.
“I know guys who have moved across the country and come from around the world to play in the MLR with LA, Austin and Atlanta. You can understand when an owner passes away and the family don’t want to continue owning the club and I commend the MLR for rapping LA and Austin over the knuckles for the salary cap issues. Denver walked away because they didn’t agree with the MLR strategy and so that stronghold of rugby went to a South American league.”
Finding a solution to halt the loss of MLR teams will be difficult and Gold has floated the idea of a loan from World Rugby to be paid back from the profits from staging the World Cups in 2031 and 2033. Gold added: “To all intents the USA is just a venue for the World Cups and from the forecasts I have seen it is an appealing venue with lots of fans expected to travel. They are thinking of playing the pools in just one venue so fans can see all the games for their teams.
“But you want your host nation to fire a shot in the tournament and I believe the USA will stage a great World Cup. USA Rugby is a non-profit organisation and raising grant money is one possible option and should be applying for grants. Then you can have a centrally contracted system.
“If USA Rugby could do that then those centrally contracted players should be outside the salary cap at the MLR clubs they join. The players are not earning hundreds of thousands of dollars and the budget I was working on was $5m a year which you would think a non-profit sport that is going to host a World Cup could raise that kind of money.
“There was even talk, although it won’t happen, at one stage of MLR approaching the NFL or order to have affiliate rugby union teams. Would the Denver Broncos be prepared to have a rugby union club and pay a lot less money? The team that seems to have got it right in the MLR is Houston who have a wealthy owner who has invested his money in the stadium and they keep the ticket money, concessions and car parking income.
“There is enough incentive for World Rugby to drive this and the projected income from the tournaments in 31 and 33 is substantially bigger than previous tournaments. Maybe it could be in the form of a loan although I recognise other countries who would also welcome financial help, would ask why not them.
“The players’ union are furious about what has happened at Rugby New York and there are tough questions to be answered.”