Understanding the MLR Trade Market

Adriaan Carelse was a key piece of launching Rugby ATL into the MLR Championship Final. His trade to the Dallas Jackals is the quintessential MLR trade.

The move sees Carelse join the Jackals in exchange for an undisclosed amount of salary cap relief (HT: AmericasRurgbyNews). To be clear, that’s a starting caliber 10 moving from a contender to an expansion side for cap considerations. If that doesn’t sound like a balanced move, there’s a reason.

It’s not.

In fairness, we don’t know the extent of the salary relief. The base cap expected to stay flat. Teams were able to earn additional space based on ‘grow the game’ incentives. Those could result in up to an additional $60,000 in cap space, though the amount each team received has not been made public. A small cap makes every dollar as precious as The One Ring.

Still, Carelse carried this team into the playoffs after Kurt Coleman fell to injury, only losing his place after his fellow South African returned to fitness. Carelse may have been deemed surplus (its debatable which of those two is better, whether there was space for both, or if the cap was the origin of the issue).

But this isn’t about the trade itself (though I surely could’ve fooled you by this point). Its about MLR trades in general.

For our non-American readers, I understand that trades can be an unusual concept. For our American readers, that’s just another bullet on the list of MLR trades that look funky. So, why do so many Major League Rugby trades look unbalanced?

Consider the talent of the league. Carelse is a starting MLR 10. I’d argue he’s in the top half of starting flyhalfs. Compare that to what a starting NFL quarterback would be worth in a trade. You’d probably expect two first round draft picks to be the minimum payment to get a top half QB. If you think in MLB or NBA terms, you’d expect several young talents going the other way. You might also see the teams work out a player for player swap if both teams have excess depth to requirement in any roster position (likely with smaller compensation used to level the deal).

Major League Rugby trades can largely be grouped into two categories: salary cap/roster spot moves and transfer facilitation.

Salary cap and roster spot moves are pretty much what they sound like. Teams are allowed up to 12 foreign players (defined as a player not eligible for selection by the USA or Canada) and 10 in a game day 23. (Teams can trade foreign player cards, but you get the point.) That 10 player game day limit is what largely forced Carelse out of the 23 when Coleman returned. It wasn’t space in the team talent wise, it was a foreign player needing to be dropped. Whether the move is to get down to the roster limit or a GM realizes they won’t be selecting a player frequently due to roster construction, the player is better moved for whatever a team can get. The same is true of salary cap moves. The aforementioned small cap leaves any player with a relatively high salary needing to be written in ink on the team sheet. Any less, and they’re better moved, both to free up cap space and generate some additional asset.

Transfer facilitation moves are even more lopsided. Again, the salary cap is tiny. (Dead Horse, I beat thee.) Players use salary to allow them to play the game, but this anything but a wealth building opportunity. Many guys still have either day or off season jobs. Its becoming less common, but its not gone. Sometimes, a player simply gets a better day job offer in another MLR city. It could be even more simple. A move might be needed for family or spousal work purposes. In these cases, players are left with the option of being traded or retiring. For the team that currently has the player uder contract, the former is far more preferable. Any incoming asset is greater than nothing. No team would turn down even a third round draft pick if the option was that or nothing. These types of deals often involve either late draft picks, small salary cap considerations, and/or foreign player cards.

That’s the name of the game in the current MLR. Sending out a player is rarely going to return a package that pushes the team higher up the ladder, but its rarely done as a pure squad decision. In a few years, especially as the college game grows, those assets could become more valuable. However, a league with high coaching turnover and 13 clubs that all want to win within the next couple years doesn’t have the patience for a slow build. Expect to see more of these moves over the next several years until the salary cap allows for wages that swing leverage back to the teams.

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