Entering Round 17 of Major League Rugby’s 2022 season, there are three clear groups of teams:
- Teams in Playoff Position
- Austin, LA, and New England have clinched playoff spots
- Atlanta, New York, and Houston have strong leads over the teams chasing them
- Teams Still Mathematically in Playoff Contention
- San Diego, Seattle, and Toronto all have slim chances of making the playoffs, but all could be eliminated this weekend
- Teams Mathematically Eliminated for Playoff Contention
- NOLA, DC, Utah, and Dallas are all well removed from the playoff chase
For that last group of teams, focus has already turned to 2023. Without the threat of relegation that is (theoretically) present in European leagues, the incentive to stay competitive down the stretch is greatly reduced. Instead, front offices focus on building their 2023 rosters. A part of that process is the use of draft capital.
It’s time to rethink how we allocate draft capital.
Like most American sporting leagues, Major League Rugby has allocated draft capital based on the reverse standings of the prior season. The process incentives tanking at its worst and indifference at its best. Once a team is eliminated, players’ only incentives are pride and their next contract.
It also reduces the excitement of the playoff race. At least three games in Round 17 will include a team outside of playoff contention. (Pending the results of Seattle/Houston on Friday, Saturday’s Austin/San Diego game could become a fourth.) While players will always want the win, coaching teams are incentivized to play developing players instead of their best 23. That leaves three (or four) teams with an increased advantage while the scheduling gods stick other playoff contenders against teams still seeking results.
So, here’s the proposal: allocate draft choices based on points accumulated after the team has been eliminated from playoff contention.
The idea is far from original. Originally designed for hockey by Adam Gold in 2012, the strategy has been thrown around to fix baseball as well. We’ll dive into how it would work in the MLR, but you can take a deeper dive into the general strategy via SportsNet.
Consider the four teams already eliminated from contention for the 2022 MLR playoff:
|Eliminated Team||Round of Elimination|
|Dallas Jackals||Round 12|
|Old Glory DC||Round 14|
|NOLA Gold||Round 14|
|Utah Warriors||Round 15|
Each team would start accumulating points in the Round following elimination. For example, Dallas would start accumulating points starting in Round 13. Both Old Glory and NOLA would start accumulating points in Round 15, which eliminates the potential for a team to be eliminated early in a round based on other results.
|Eliminated Team||Round of Elimination||Points accumulated Prior to Elimination||Points Accumulated by the End of Round 16||Points Toward Draft Positioning|
|Dallas Jackals||Round 12||4||4||0|
|Old Glory DC||Round 14||16||17||1|
|NOLA Gold||Round 14||20||25||5|
|Utah Warriors||Round 15||22||26||4|
Under the Gold Plan, the ‘Draft Standings’ after Round 16 would look like this:
|Draft Position||Team||Points Toward Draft Positioning|
|3.||Old Glory DC||1|
With this approach, all twelve teams playing in Round 17 would have something to gain from favorable results. Fans could be thrilled about wins instead of thinking their team dropped in the draft order.
The prime counterpoint is that the MLR Draft pool isn’t filled with tons of talented day one starters. That’s why it’s important to make these changes now. First, with few immediate starters, the incentive to work your way up the draft order is high. Second, as the league expands and the talent pipeline grows, the inclination to make these changes will decrease amongst consistently bad teams.
Major League Rugby has prioritized fan engagement. Whether it’s social media, gaming, or in-stadium experience, the league has found ways to reach the fans. It would only be logical for the league to be the first in the world to incentivize winning from the first kickoff of the regular season until the final whistle of the Championship Final.