Tanking Won’t Work In Major League Rugby… Yet

With three teams mathematically eliminated and two more likely to join them this weekend, would an American rugby team adopt the American pro sports approach and tank?

For our international readers, tanking is a common tactic used by American sports teams that have no realistic chance at championship contention. The practice is centered around intentionally losing to improve draft positioning.

Simply put, more losing = earlier draft position = a better chance at a game changing young player.

We don’t see tanking in our rugby competitions due to the lack of an entry draft. There’s no advantage to losing. In the Premiership, losing could result in relegation.

In America, entry drafts are a key piece of team building. In the major sporting leagues, rookies enter with largely predetermined contracts. Consider the NFL, where there’s little negotiation between the team and selected player. Drafted rookies receive standard four year contracts (first round draft picks include a team option for a fifth year). Salaries are set by a formula, usually at levels well below market value.

Teams use the draft to add young, relatively cheap talent. Sticking with the NFL example, a successful, established quarterback can earn $30 million+ each year, while a rookie draft pick can make as little as $500,000/year. This allows teams to offer big contracts to veterans seeking a large payday.

At face value, it would seem that MLR sides have the same opportunity. Draft young American talent, then round out the roster with Eagles and international play makers. But consider the following:

Evaluating Draft Picks is a Challenge

A bit of context: while the NFL hypes its draft as a day of hope where every team is choosing a future Hall of Fame player, the reality is less glossy. Roughly half of all NFL first round draft picks are not starting players by the end of their initial four year contract. Some can still be successful role players, but even the best evaluators can’t accurately predict who will be the best at the highest level.

Now consider the realities of amateur rugby in America. While a few college programs have started churning out professional players (Life University being the leader), even the best programs are hard to evaluate. The lack of uniform talent between teams makes players tough to evaluate. Is that prop really a dominate force, or is he part of a pack always going forward against greatly inferior competition? Of course, that assumes there’s any decent film on a team/player whatsoever. Add in a pandemic year where many teams never saw a single scrum. The draft will always be a bit of a crap shoot. This year will be an unfriendly slot machine.

MLR Lacks Standard Rookie Contracts

No one in Major League Rugby is highly paid. With a $500,000 salary cap and $40,000 max salary, every dollar counts. Those conditions would make cheap, young talent even more appealing. However, the MLR does not include predetermined rookie contracts like other leagues. The team has leverage since they’re the only source of demand, but the player has the ability to sit out a year and re-enter if terms are deemed unsuccessful. Plus, the team wouldn’t be able to replace them with a player of equal caliber (assuming equal players were also drafted). Since the rookie can negotiate, they’ll be able to demand at least a modest wage.

Rugby Typically Features Short-Term Deals

The nature of rugby lends to short careers. Short careers = short contracts. No player wants to be tied to a sinking team when their playing window is so small. With thin margins, no team wants to be tied to an expensive player should the lose form due to injury or age. In the Premiership, the team could even be tied to an expensive player after relegation. Trying paying international player salaries with Championship level revenue.

Most MLR players are in the last year of their deal. If the team decides to tank, why would they stick around? While you can use that time to develop young talent, veterans need to see the potential for future championships if they’re going to sign up for another year.

American Fans Lack Devotion to the Local Team

Think players aren’t tied to teams? Think about American fan bases.

The low MLR salary cap is tied to the low MLR revenue. Sure, some sides have starting building real fan bases, but are you going to go out and support a team that’s losing consistently? Probably by 8+ points and with limited attack to avoid a bonus point? It’s unlikely. If the fans stay home, the dollars stay home. Plus, the fan excitement has been a selling point for young international talent that’s used to playing in front of much smaller crowds.

Tanking will eventually come to Major League Rugby. When it does, it will be a side effect of the league’s success. High, consistent revenue would allow it. Strong, devoted fan bases will be ingrained into the game’s culture. The amateur game will have improved enough to make rookies highly appealing. That day isn’t near… but it will come.

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