For those of you that have loved the MLR as much as I have over the last few years, you know that 2020 held massive potential. Three new teams entered and all had wins within a few weeks. Big global names, like Ma’a Nonu and The Beast himself, decided to bring their talents to the States. San Diego and Toronto looked like teams that could hold their own in other, more developed second tier comps. Even Austin was starting to show signs of life with a draw and a win in Rounds 4 and 5 respectively.
We all know what happened next.
It was March of last year when the pandemic became very real for all of us. We all have our unique moment, but for me it was the first night of the Big Ten’s Men’s Basketball Tournament. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg was removed during the game as he sat visibly ill on the bench. Hoiberg would go on to test negative for COVID-19, but the fear he may have been infected, and spreading the virus, left me realizing that fear was going to be with us for a while.
There was no second night of that tournament. As an Illini season ticket holder, it was absolutely devastating.
I was scheduled to make a trip home to see family that same weekend, a group that still refuses to accept Covid-19 was ever the threat it so clearly was. (In fairness, I think it’s hard for any of us to truly comprehend what it’s taken from us.) I’d had in my calendar an hour to make my game picks on Thursday before taking off.
I didn’t make those picks. The draft for ‘Spoiler Alert: Round 6’ still sits in my post drafts to this day. I knew we’d seen the last of MLR’s 2020 season.
The initial word was 30 days. We all knew that wouldn’t be feasible. The world was in fear. Frankly, rugby didn’t matter.
As late spring turned to summer, we heard of an MLR Draft. I tried to scout players and resurrect this old blog. After a summer where I tried cover the various Super Rugby comps for the sake of content, I needed something domestic to talk about. Heck, we were all craving anything sport related. (Side note: New Zealand also has a basketball league that I found on ESPN+. Even during a global pandemic, it was hard to watch.) In reality, I was fearing for MLR. With rumors of a rival National Rugby Football League still going around, plus the sheer fact that revenue was gone for the year, I think you’d have to really wonder if MLR was going to make it. Was the Draft true growth, or was it a zombie taking one more stab at life?
In full disclosure, ‘Have We Seen the Last of Major League Rugby’ also remains in my post drafts. It was mapped out in my head, but I could never bring myself to write it.
Cases continued surging. Things somehow got worse. Holidays weren’t spent with family. Even religious days felt like a thing of the distant past. And, somewhere in there, Dallas pulled out.
Yet, somehow, we made it here.
It was impressive that MLR was able to restart. The fact that we have fans in the stands is an ode to our collective scientific ingenuity. We’ve had one game shifted due to COVID-19, but there haven’t been any games canceled or even moved from their originally weekend. Restarting was a huge step, but finally seeing Round 6 is the victory this young league has more than earned.
We should be thankful to everyone in MLR. From the owners that still paid full player salaries, to the leadership that managed to somehow expand the league’s reach through partnerships and increased media presence. From the players that decided they wanted to keep giving to MLR, to the fans that believes more consistently than I did that this league would see the spring of 2021. Heck, when the Free Jacks rolled over their inaugural season tickets to 2021 only two fans needed refunds. The other 498 stuck with the side. That’s a fan base. That’s a community.
Now comes the call to action. This league has given so much. There’s still something we can do for it. If it’s possible, go catch a game in person. If not, catch a broadcast. Local television and The Rugby Network will cost you nothing. Introduce a friend to the MLR. If you offer a buddy a beer, he’ll watch anything. Show him or her the one league that fully paid its players and treated them the right way. Even sharing a clip on social media is a great start. I recommend this one.
Finally, and most importantly, stay safe. Wear a mask. And, for the love of all things rugby, get vaccinated. Then tell your new rugby buddy to do the same. The best thing for this league financially is for this pandemic to end. You can actually play a part in that. If for any reason it will impact your decision, I’ve gotten my first dose, and next week I’ll walk into Walgreens for my second. I’ll still wear a mask in public, but I can already feel a weight lifting.
Do it for yourself. Do it for the ones you care about. Do it for rugby.