Having been at the eye of the media storm during the 2020 U.S. presidential race, the state of Georgia is set to welcome an altogether different form of scrummaging next weekend as it becomes the epicentre of the North American rugby universe.
Already home to Rugby ATL, a second-year outfit in the 12-team Major League Rugby, suburban Atlanta will also become the stomping grounds – at least temporarily – for the league’s lone Canadian franchise, the Toronto Arrows.
After seeing a promising 2020 season curtailed by the pandemic – the Arrows were top of the Eastern Conference with a 4-1 record when MLR shut down a year ago – the team is eager to pick up where it left off. Sizeable hurdles still lie ahead, but in what is shaping up to be Canadian rugby union’s most important season in ages, with Olympic sevens tournaments for both men and women, as well as men’s Rugby World Cup qualifiers in the fall, the Toronto Arrows recognize their role in getting things off on the right foot, and they are taking it seriously.
“Ramping up to move an entire franchise to another country is not as easy as it looks,” says Mark Winokur, the team’s general manager and chief operating officer. “… It’s a real challenge and we wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but the only alternative would be to sit out the season and we’re not doing that – that was never an option.”
If there is a silver lining to moving south, aside from the weather in Marietta, Ga., where the team will be playing out of Lupo Family Field at Life University, it is the possibility for cost savings. Eight of the team’s 16 regular-season games will be at “home” in Marietta – nine if you want to include the March 20 season opener at Rugby ATL – so that just leaves seven flights to places such as Utah, Austin and Houston.
The ability to fly out of Atlanta, a major U.S. transportation hub, makes accessing some of these places easier than flying out of Toronto, too, and that’s even before you factor in the Canada-U.S. border, which remains closed for the foreseeable future.
“There’s additional costs but there’s also a bunch of savings,” says Bill Webb, president and majority owner of the team. “As soon as that border reopens we have plans to come back here and play.”
When the Arrows leave Canada on Thursday, they will fly down with roughly 31 players and nine members of staff, and while the team will initially stay in hotels, there are tentative plans to move into Airbnb or other short-term rental accommodation after the first few weeks.
The “expedition,” as Webb calls it, hasn’t deviated the Arrows from their on-field flight path, however. Webb, who is a partner at Toronto’s Waypoint Investment Partners when he’s not busy bleeding blue and white on game days, has the health of rugby in this country, both now and well into the future, as his guiding principle.
So while other teams in MLR are making sexy international splashes, such as Rugby United New York adding former All Black Andrew Ellis or the expansion Los Angeles Giltinis signing a pair of former Australian internationals with Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, Webb is staying the course. That means focusing on Canadian talent and strength in depth.
Not that he’s against other teams landing some of the big names in world rugby, such as the San Diego Legion, who will have former England captain Chris Robshaw in its ranks when the season kicks off next weekend.
“We believe that it’s great to have a Chris Robshaw join it, it raises the profile of the league and of the league globally,” Webb says. “For us, it’s really about getting the new fan to follow the game. And I don’t think that’s about star players, unless LeBron James wants to suddenly come play rugby.”
Leaving aside the question of whether Webb could raise the funds to pay James, a highly touted wide receiver in high school, squeezing the NBA star’s current US$39-million into MLR’s US$500,000 salary cap is likely beyond the realms of even the most savvy capologist.
But in all seriousness, MLR’s finances make it abundantly clear that the players heading to Georgia are doing it for the love of the game more than anything else. It’s one thing asking LeBron and the rest of the Lakers to hole up at Disney World for a couple of months while making millions on their way to an NBA championship. It’s a different ask when players are making a fraction of that and are dividing their time exclusively between the hotel, the training facility and the stadium.
“You obviously feel bad saying, guys, you can’t do this and you can’t do that, especially when we’re not getting paid millions of dollars,” says attack coach Peter Smith. “But having spoken with some of them, it’s just like they are happy playing rugby again and happy to be back.”
The players aren’t the only ones. American Airlines recently signed a multiyear deal as a major sponsor and partner for MLR entering its fourth season of existence. On a more local level, Honda remains committed as the main sponsor of the Arrows, while the team announced a renewal of its broadcast deal with TSN on Tuesday.
Further afield, global private equity firm CVC Capital Partners paid £365-million ($634-million) for a 14.3-per-cent stake in the annual Six Nations in a deal that was announced on Friday, while earlier this year, U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake made a US$330-million bid to acquire up to 15 per cent of the New Zealand All Blacks’ commercial rights.
Webb says the sport of rugby offers a great marriage for corporate entities looking to get their names out of the boardroom and onto the field.
“I think we’ll see more partners who want to be involved in the game for a lot of reasons,” he says. “One, the inclusivity of it, the fact that it’s men and women playing the game. Our women’s teams are outstanding.”
The sport received something of a blow this week when the 2021 women’s World Cup was postponed until next year. But the Tokyo Olympics are fast approaching, and the Canadian women sevens team will be looking to improve on its bronze medals from Rio, while the men will make their first appearance in the event, which debuted in 2016.
“All things are shaping up to be some pretty big years between 2021, 22 and 23,” says Allen Vansen, the chief executive officer of Rugby Canada.
The men’s 15s team faces the United States in a two-legged World Cup qualifier in September, with the winner gaining a berth at France 2023 and the other dropping into a repechage situation. Given that Canada hasn’t beaten the United States since 2013, and with 12 Canadian internationals on the Arrows, Vansen knows how crucial club chemistry and the MLR could be to Canadian fortunes.
That home-grown chemistry will be even more vital if for any reason Canada can’t pull off its scheduled July international against England, with the location of the match still undecided.
“We really want to be that emerging nation that is feared by the established nations when they play Canada,” Vansen says. “… Major League Rugby for us is paramount to that because it’s that opportunity for us to have more players playing at a higher level.”