San Diego will play host to one of the Major League Rugby (MLR) clubs this year. This is not news. San Diego, specifically the San Diego Legion were one of the late additions to the MLR line up for its inaugural season and some of us (especially ruggers in California) wanted to learn more about the new club.
San Diego was home of the defunct PRO Rugby side the Breakers. It is also home to some of the top senior level rugby (both men’s and women’s), college programs and youth, as well as the Olympic Training Center, so it makes sense that San Diego would play home to a MLR side.
In our story on OMBAC a few months ago we reported that OMBAC had explored the MLR option, but it was not a fit with the club’s current goals and the business model was not a fit for OMBAC. That did not stop MLR from gaining a foothold in California. So we wanted to find out more about the newest addition to MLR and California’s only professional rugby side!
MLR’s Deputy Commissioner Nic Benson and the SD Legion’s Matt Hawkins provided us with some insight to the MLR and the establishment of the professional club in San Diego. Yes, the Matt Hawkins we are referencing is the former Eagle, former Eagles’ 7s coach, former SD Breakers assistant coach, and Atavus coach Matt Hawkins who is now involved with the SD Legion.
The Rugby Republic (RR): How did MLR get going? We know some of the clubs started moving towards professionalism, but at what point did the actual MLR aspect of it get started?
Nic Benson (NB): MLR started when a group of existing clubs and local business people came together to find a better way to professionally organize the sport in the U.S. The goal was to develop a professional competition that would build on, and form, the existing infrastructure with an emphasis on growing the game and on creating a sustainable long-term model.
RR: What is the short term goal for MLR?
NB: Our goal is to put on the highest level competition that's ever been fielded in American rugby. Not only in terms of the product on the field, but also in terms of the fan experience and the media product.
RR: How (for good or bad) has PRO Rugby influenced the MLR? What are some lessons learned from having seen PRO which will help make MLR successful?
NB: We're grateful to PRO, and to anyone else who has invested time and energy to grow the American game. Launching a professional league is a huge task. Ultimately, we believe in our model because it draws on the strength of American rugby and its existing infrastructure in a way those that came before us did not.
RR: Is there a plan to balance the number of domestic players versus international on the clubs, or is that not a factor or concern at this time?
NB: Oh yes. We will limit each game day roster to five international players, so to allow for development of domestic players.
RR: Was there always a plan/effort to get a club in California? Was there effort to engage some of the more established existing clubs to join (SFGG, Santa Monica, OMBAC) or even combine a few? What were some barriers to getting a club in California?
NB: We have talked to a lot of great clubs, and investors, in California and around the country. Obviously, California is a great market for rugby, and for sports in general, so we made a particular effort to engage in the region.
RR: How did the SD Legion come about? We haven't heard much in terms of details? Will it have an affiliation with any of the local clubs? Where will they play (USD has a top notch stadium)?
Matt Hawkins: We've been in conversations with the group in San Diego since late 2016. They are a great group with terrific rugby credentials, a strong investor and business support. There has been a lot of planning into establishing the Legion.
RR: With SD coming on so late will there be a challenge in signing or acquiring high level or quality players?
NB: We feel that everyone will face challenges in the first few seasons as each team finds their footing. Players are drawn to a team, by a few specific pieces we believe. Coaching, training environment, professionalism and location. We check those boxes and provide a fantastic environment for any player to come in to and take the next steps in their career.
RR: The San Diego Legion are building, but clubs like Austin, NOLA, Glendale, etc. have been established clubs, and newer clubs like Houston have time to build up, is San Diego at a disadvantage?
NB: I don't believe we face any more of a disadvantage than the other teams, as we have the right mix of ownership and industry specialist to take advantage of the rich rugby community that already exists in Southern California. In that same approach, we feel we are in a position to add significantly to what currently exists and provide opportunities for the youth, High School, Senior Club and Elite players, both male and female and those coaches and administrators that currently support those programs in our community.
RR: Will the fact that cost of living is so high in San Diego be a challenge to getting players to move or reside in San Diego? Are there any plans underway to try and re-engage some of the players who played in San Diego for the Breakers (Kurt Morath, Tim Stanfill, Mikey Te’O, Phil McKenzie, etc.)?
NB: We have had a coaching group in place for over six months now, who have a wealth of experience and they have approached the recruitment of our player pool in a very deliberate manner. We have a few people in our group that have faced the challenges of living in San Diego and chasing the rugby dream and are very well versed in that and are able to talk to the players coming in with authenticity about the challenge, but also provide guidance on how to approach it. The lifestyle and community we have here in San Diego is second to none and helps balance any issues around an increased housing tag.
RR: What are the challenges with having a club in San Diego, and at the same time what are also the benefits of being in San Diego?
NB: The challenges of having a club in San Diego is no different to having a club anywhere else in the US. We have to make our sport relevant and at the same time create a mainstream desire for the content we are producing. The benefits of having a club in San Diego are our weather and ability to be out in the community and engaging with other groups that have had an impact on the San Diego landscape. We also have the ability based on facilities and again our coastline to host incredible events and provide our players and fans with an experience unlike any other.
RR: How can MLR and the SD Legion help in growing the game in California?
NB: Growing the game of rugby is a critical component of our mission. San Diego has one of the most robust youth rugby ecosystems in the country, we are looking forward to working with them to continue to grow the game in their region and across the country.
We would like to thank Nic Benson, Matt Hawkins, MT Sports, MLR and the San Diego Legion for giving us some of their time. We are excited about the MLR (especially with a California side in the mix). Also the Legion have the sweetest kits in MLR. For more information check out the MLR website.