The 2022 MLR season will see Dallas field the league’s 13th team. 2023 could see even more growth.
Somewhat overlooked in the mess around schedule dropping was a piece in the Sports Business Journal concerning the MLR’s growth. The final paragraph of the article is below:
Killebrew said that league expansion remains a key focus and that, for the foreseeable future, the league hopes to add one or two expansion clubs each year. MLR is currently in exclusive negotiations with two potential ownership groups eyeing entry to the league in 2023.Sports Business Journal
If Killebrew is targeting annual growth, just how many sides could Major League Rugby add in 2023? The case for each is below.
The Case for One Expansion Team
This one is easy. The 13 team league is a terrible number. At a time that seems decades old, Dallas would be joining as the league’s 14th side. Instead, Colorado departed after the abbreviated 2020 season. That would’ve seen the league grow from 12 in 2020 to 14 in 2021. A single expansion in 2023 would see that vision come true.
Who could join as the MLR’s 14th member? Chicago seems a better bet than even the field. Major League Rugby lacks a Midwestern franchise. The talk has circulated for a couple years of a Chicago ownership group being aggressive. Even Commissioner Killebrew has openly mused about Chicago joining soon. A team in the Windy City would tap into another rugby hotbed, provide balance between the conferences, and reduce the scheduling headaches that come from a prime number of sides.
The Case for Two Expansion Teams
A pair of expansion teams opens much more speculation over location. Rumors have circulated around Miami, Montreal, Vancouver, Philadelphia, and even a return to Denver with a new group. As of last spring, the league was in various levels of discussions with a total of 11 potential ownership groups: 9 in the USA and 2 in Canada.
A 15th side carries several benefits. It would allow the league to add another year in a market that could play host to World Cup games in 2031. The side would provide additional playing time for domestic talent. And, as always, it would bring another expansion fee to a league that has struggled from the pandemic.
The arguments against a two team expansion are pretty simple. First, does the league have the talent pool to expand at that rate? The league already has an issue with having one bad team each year (even if the title has shifted from Austin to Houston). The league could expand the number of foreign players allowed to accommodate expansion, but the game day limit of 12 already limits the amount of American talent seeing significant playing time.
Second, a 15th team presents many of the issues of a 13 team league. Uneven conferences, scheduling headaches, and weekly byes all present annoyances. Most of those are tolerated in a sports league’s growth phase, but they are annoyances all the same.
The Case for Three Expansion Teams
SBJ might’ve reported the league being in negotiations with two potential franchises for 2023, but that doesn’t mean additional sides couldn’t enter such talks between now and next summer (likely the latest a team could join for 2023 and be ready for that season).
Depending on how you look at it, a 3 team expansion could be fantastic for the league or an absolute nightmare. It allows for yet another market to be accessed 8 years before a World Cup hosting opportunity. I creates clean, even conferences and scheduling. It also stretches the talent pool even further.
A tri-team expansion wouldn’t be unprecedented. MLR grew by three sides in the 2020 season when Old Glory DC, Rugby ATL, and the New England Free Jacks all entered. While DC and New England were competitive sides late in the year in 2021, and ATL has a championship appearance to their name, all three sides were starting to show signs of weakness after the initial rounds of 2020. A three team expansion where all three start to stumble in the second quarter of the year could be a risk the league isn’t willing to take.