The Toronto Arrows will have to forge their identity on the road.
With the Major League Rugby season kicking off Jan. 26, Canada’s first pro rugby union team will play its first eight games away from home because of winter.
Toronto will play at New Orleans, Austin (Texas), Seattle, Houston, Glendale (Colo.), San Diego, New York and Utah before its April 7 home opener. The visit by New Orleans’ NOLA Gold marks the first of eight straight games in Toronto.
The regular season wraps up June 2 with the visit of Rugby United New York. The top four teams in the nine-team league make the playoffs.
This will be the second season of the North American pro rugby league and the first for a Canadian team. The Seattle Seawolves, whose roster included Canadians Phil Mack, Ray Barkwill, George Barton, Cam Polson and Brock Staller, won the inaugural MLR title.
York University will serve as the Arrows’ primary home.
MLR featured seven teams in its inaugural season – Austin, Houston, Glendale, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle and Utah – with Toronto and Rugby United NY coming on board in 2019.
The league is set to expand further in 2020 with the additions of Atlanta, Dallas, New England (Boston) and Washington, D.C.
Similar to Major League Soccer, MLR is a single-entity structure with owners buying an equal stake in the league.
In the fall of 2017, co-founder Bill Webb and a group of fellow rugby enthusiasts decided to fund a team for an exhibition season to see if a pro team was viable. The Ontario Arrows become the Toronto Arrows in the process.
The Arrows ownership includes Webb, former NHL executive Brian Burke, Boat Rocker Sports (a division of Boat Rocker Media), Duncan McNaughton (an assistant coach with the Canadian women’s team and the Queen’s University men’s team), Kevin Reed of AR3 Capital and John Ferraro of Mass Marketing Inc.
Like Webb, Burke is a member of Rugby Canada’s board of directors. Now a TV hockey pundit, Burke is a long-time fan of the sport that he started playing as a law student.
Toronto, which announced its first 12 player signings Tuesday, will carry a 30-man roster of which 20 to 22 players will be under contract. The remaining associate players will get paid on a short-term basis.
With a salary cap of US$450,000 ($590,000), those 22 contracted players would only average about US$20,450.
“For the contracted players it’s a full-time job but it’s really a semi-professional league given where the salaries are right now,” Webb said.
Webb said many of the players will take leave of absences from their jobs, put studies on hold or have part-time work to augment their rugby income.
Canadian and U.S. players are treated as domestic talent. Teams are allowed up to 10 non-North American players, only five of which can be capped foreign players.
The Arrows have yet to confirm their coach.
Training camp will start in December after the Rugby World Cup repechage tournament in France.
Webb says the Arrows games will be broadcast, with details to come later. The team has yet to detail ticket pricing but says it already has deposits from several hundred people interested in season tickets.
Webb says MLR revenue will come from corporate sponsorship (both league-wide and local), ticket sales and merchandise.
Canada already has a pro rugby league team in the Toronto Wolfpack. Debuting in 2017, the Wolfpack currently plays the 13-man version of the game in England’s second-tier Betfred Championship.
Rugby league is the 13-player version of the sport. Rugby union features 15- and seven-player versions of the game.