Previewing 2020 – Conferences and Rivalries

Over the next few days, we’ll take a look at some of the top stories in Major League Rugby, especially those impacting MLR as a whole, heading into the 2020 season. First up, the conference system.

Every person has that moment when they realize something in their life has changed. I don’t necessarily mean that a sudden event has occurred, but rather a slow, gradual change that finally catches the eye. It could be something good, like really noticing that you’ve lost weight, or something less positive, like realizing your fancy car is now a clunker. 

Major League Rugby is having one of those moments, and it couldn’t be much more positive.

It’s a little crazy that, with only two complete seasons under its belt, the MLR has expanded from seven teams in 2018 to twelve teams heading into 2020. That works out to 31% annual growth in number of clubs. Let that sink in for a moment. We now have twelve clubs playing six matches most weeks. 

League expansion will be given its own post, but you have to understand the (brief) history to appreciate the magnitude of the conference format. If you missed the news, the MLR will divide teams into the aptly named Eastern and Western conferences. Austin, Houston, Seattle, San Diego, Colorado, and Utah will fill the Western Conference. Newcomers Atlanta, New England, and Washington DC will join Toronto, New Orleans, and New York in the Eastern Conference. 

The schedule will change as well. Instead of each team facing all MLR sides both on the road and at home, teams will now host and visit all teams in their conference, as well hosting three members of the opposite conference while visiting the other three teams. More nearby games mean less heavy travel for clubs and players, including reduced expenses for the still young league. We also can’t gloss over the chance for players to be at home a bit more instead of taking long flights from one coast to the other. 

However, I’d be remised if not discussing the big takeaway everyone seems to have from the conference format: the creation of rivalries. 

In the West, it’s easy to see rivalries forming quickly. The SaberCats and the Herd battling for the hearts of the Lone Star State. The Warriors and Raptors fighting for pride in the open west. And even without a conference system, the Legion surly have some anger issues when it comes to the SeaWolves. Western rivalries just make sense.

Eastern Conference rivalries are a bit different. The NOLA Gold are the only founding MLR side in the conference. The East as a whole has a combined four seasons of MLR play between its six teams. RUNY and the Free Jacks feel like potential rivals based on city histories. The Gold and Rugby ATL fit the same bill. The Arrows and Old Glory? I’m not sure that a natural rivalry exists either between the sides or with any other team in the league. Unlike the West, Eastern rivalries will take more time. 

With so many international players, simple city rivalries will need more to grow. It’ll be about rivalry culture as well as performance. In the NFL, there’s no reason Indianapolis and New England would be natural rivals but watching all-time greats Peyton Manning and Tom Brady battle in the regular season and (even more often) the playoffs led to highly anticipated matchups. We’ll need something similar to really cement Eastern rivalries.

Rivalries are one of the keys in moving the MLR forward. They take casual fans and turn them into fanatics. They drive more eyes to screens and butts to seats. We should all hope things get a bit heated this year. 


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