Major League Rugby Gambles on Las Vegas Weekend

This weekend, Major League Rugby will descend upon Las Vegas, sending 8 teams to play 4 matches in Nevada at Sam Boyd Stadium. This comes one week after the newcomer Free Jacks shockingly upset RUNY at Sam Boyd, because sometimes a weekend in Vegas turns into a little more. 

Major sports leagues sending teams to unusual locations, normally abroad, has become a way of expanding their league’s influence. The NFL plays annual games in London. Major League Baseball will send the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry across the pond for a 2-game set in July. The NBA was originally supposed to play preseason games in China this year. They turn into fun events where sports leagues can reach a new set of fans that would never be able to see games in person. 

So why is MLR headed to Vegas? And why with a whopping five games over two weekends?

Las Vegas has a growing rugby culture. It also has seen other high-level events in the recent past. The USA Rugby Sevens tournament was played at Sam Boyd in 2019 with fantastic results. In a vacuum, rugby visiting Sin City seems like a match made in heaven. 

However, there’s more to the story. How does taking five matches to Vegas add more value than it subtracts?

One complaint many NFL teams have about international games is that one team has to lose a home game in the process. A competitive advantage is lost at a neutral site. That’s just the impact on the field. Revenue is lost on everything from tickets to concessions. Fans lose the chance to see their team at home. However, the league knows the generated revenue, both directly and in the form of increased broadcasting deals, will more than compensate in the long term.

This is where I have to make something abundantly clear: MLR is not the NFL. 

If you watched any matches this weekend, you saw poor turnout. The Arrows/Gilgronis match looked more like a middle school play that half the parents found an excuse to skip. And that big Free Jacks upset in their inaugural game played at the very site we’re sending the league? It wasn’t exactly overflowing either. 

We can throw a lot of factors into these attendance issues. Sure, the weather in Austin was terrible Sunday evening, but weather has never driven a Packers fan to forgo Lambeau Field in favor of his couch. Revenue will almost certainly be lost, as well as a chance to engage the local market and grow the game on the ground. Stadium workers will go without paychecks. It feels like a steep price. And if you’re the Free Jacks, Warriors, RUNY, Arrows, or Legion, who had to both give up a home game AND add in additional travel costs in a league with thin profit margins, you should be genuinely upset.

All this circles back to the overarching question: ‘Why?’ It seems like there are two options.

  1. Las Vegas is in the running for an expansion team.
  2. MLR wants to put the game in front of gamblers.

If an expansion team is the reason, that needs to be a concern. Assuming the rumors of Los Angeles and Dallas being the next two teams joining the league are correct, another western team creates logistical issues, as well as leaves some intriguing eastern markets untapped. I’ll save the expansion debate for another time, but leaving Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and all of Florida untapped for the sake of Vegas feels like a reach.

If gambling is the game, this has the potential to be worth it. Like it or not, sports gambling will be massive. The bigger leagues are slowly started to embrace it as a new way to generate revenue. MLR could be on the forefront, engraining betting into the young league’s identity. It could drive additional visibility for the game and, maybe, actually put butts in the seats and games on our screens. 

There is a third option that doesn’t rise to the level of the first two but is worth examining. Is the MLR scouting a home for a potential All-Star game? Commissioner Killebrew made it clear that a game is in the near future during his appearance on MLR Kickoff. Could the MLR make Las Vegas its All-Star home the same way the NFL once used Hawaii? An All-Star game wouldn’t have a natural home like these matches do. In many ways, it would serve as an annual opportunity to increase exposure to gambling. It’s worth watching.

The MLR must have an underlying agenda for this trip. We’ll just have to see what the long-term play is, as well as if the crowd size justifies all the headaches (assuming the league ever tells us how to watch).

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