How a 15 Team MLR Could Look

Major League Rugby is growing, both in the short and long terms. The league appears destined for a 30+ side system in the long term. It could reach the halfway point next year.

The Saint Louis Knights and a Chicago team are in discussions for a 2023 entry. If both teams are admitted, how will the MLR competition format adapt?

Let’s look at the most likely options.

Maintain the Eastern – Western Structure

The simplest approach would be adding the two team to the current conferences. Chicago being placed in the Eastern Conference is an easy call. Saint Louis would feel like a Western Conference, assuming the Mississippi River remains an informal divider.

If that were the case, we’d likely see the current trend of declining amounts of inter-conference games continue. Unless the league adopts the NHL approach to scheduling, a continuation of home-and-away series will see the larger conference (which moves to eight teams) play only two inter-conference matches during the regular season. That’s less than ideal, but would continue reducing expenses for teams.

Add a Third Conference

If its balance you want, I recommend the Central Conference.

A 15 team conference divides easily into 3 conferences with 5 sides each (math is hard). The exact structure would be open to debate, but here’s a general idea.

Eastern Conference

  • New York
  • New England
  • Toronto
  • DC
  • Atlanta

Central Conference

  • Houston
  • Dallas
  • Saint Louis
  • Chicago
  • NOLA

Western Conference

  • San Diego
  • Seattle
  • LA
  • Utah
  • Austin

The biggest issue would be dividing the Texas teams. I simply used the western most teams. Sure, an argument could be made for different combinations, but that’s a general outline.

There is another option: the Southern Conference. Let’s look at what that could look like.

Eastern Conference

  • Toronto
  • New England
  • New York
  • DC
  • Chicago

Southern Conference

  • Austin
  • Houston
  • Dallas
  • NOLA
  • Atlanta

Western Conference

  • LA
  • San Diego
  • Seattle
  • Utah
  • Saint Louis

Saint Louis having to travel to the West Coast regularly wouldn’t be ideal, but it does allow the Texas sides staying together.

The affects on scheduling would be huge. Every team could play every other team in their conference home-and-away, then divide their remaining eight games between the other two conferences. The formula to determine who plays who outside the conference is for people smarter than me, but the options are plenty.

Conference Divisions

The structure that MLR chooses will say a lot about its longer term plans. Last summer, Commissioner George Killebrew indicated that the league was in various levels of discussion with eleven different cities about expansion. The league won’t be excited about re-configuring its layout each and every year. That’s from where the most likely solution comes: divisions.

The conference structure is common throughout the USA sporting landscape, but none of the big four traditional leagues stop there. The National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League use division structures to determine playoff participants. (The National Basketball Association uses divisions, but they only impact scheduling and tiebreakers, not as a direct means of determining playoff qualification.)

Don’t expect to see a division structure implemented until 2024. Dividing each conference into two divisions would require at least 16 teams. Otherwise, the three team division would be be stuck playing each other at least three times a year, not impossible to manage (its happening in the East this year) but far from ideal. also, it creates a situation in which a not-so-good team could qualify for the playoffs because the two other sides in its division are simply not good.

One way or another, expect that the league will make some change to the overall competition structure within the next couple of years. The goal will be a clear, understandable path to the playoffs that may evolve but never be completely reconstructed.

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