Editorial: MLR Team in Vancouver – What It Would and Wouldn’t Accomplish
Patrick Johnston wrote an article in the Province last week, Vancouver group rallies to take another look at pro rugby.
My editorial view is, an MLR team in BC would be good but it’s not going to be the saviour of Canadian rugby, if there’s money to be spent there are other options.
First let’s look at the positives of having an MLR team in BC, most would say Vancouver area based.
1. Raises the profile of rugby in the local media.
2. Engages sports fans who are not currently part of the rugby community.
3. Allows selected players to make money while playing rugby.
4. Gives youth players the vision of a local pathway to pro rugby.
5. Become part of a North American community of MLR fans.
There may be other positives but those are the first that come to mind, feel free to add others in the comment section.
What some people think it will do but I would disagree, is raise the level of the men’s national team. The results of Canada and USA in the current World Cup cycle (they both missed qualification, they both relied on MLR) shows the league is not strong enough yet to drive national team World Cup qualification. The key to that is getting more players into Tier 1 professional competitions – and having a coach who can manage Tier 1 pros, Tier 2 pros and amateur players. That’s the way Canada have qualified in the past. You look at Canada Soccer’s rise this last World Cup cycle and they had a healthy mix of Tier 1 pros on the team. You can also look at the women’s XVs program to see what worked for them, and having players in England and France to play Tier 1 club rugby was a factor.
What’s BC’s role in supporting the national teams? From my perspective, it’s to get players up to a level where they’re competing for national team spots and being marketed to both Tier 1 and Tier 2 pro leagues. If there’s money to be spent in BC for elite rugby, this is where I would like to see it go.
The buy in for MLR is around 10 million and the yearly operating costs are around 4 to 6 million, according to one published source. The Province article quotes one of the current organizing group, “We’ve got the knowledge and the infrastructure. What we need is a Ryan Reynolds-type”, a reply on social media stated the obvious, “no offence, but if you don’t have the money, you don’t have anything.” If someone wants to kick in that sort of money, then that’s great, we’ll support your efforts but for a fraction of the cost some positive changes could be made to BC Rugby to support the national teams and accomplish #1 and #2 on the above list, raise the profile of rugby in the media and engage sport fans who are not currently part of the rugby community.
When COVID hit, it shut rugby down for a while in BC but when things started to come back to normal it created an opportunity, the Coastal Cup filled that niche in the fall of 2021. It had an entrepreneurial excitement to it, Eddie Evans was the league commissioner, Curry Hitchborn of UBC and Andy Evans of TWU were strong driving forces in its creation and sustainability, the regions got on board and put forth teams. They quickly mobilized, Mark Janzen of TWU became the communication manager, they built their own website, had rosters posted 24 hours before the match, posted same day match results and reports, updated social media and streamed many of their matches. It was looking almost professional, a level above the BC Premier. It was the best rugby we’ve had in BC in a decade or more. They did all of this without a major sponsor. Imagine what it could have become with an infusion of some money. It gave rise that summer to the national Coast to Coast Cup and the formation of the Canada West team.
By 2022 the BCRU got their machine operational again and throttled the life out of this fledgling enterprise. The Coastal Cup was run in name only, it didn’t have the regions support, it wasn’t even acknowledged by the BCRU as the Coastal Cup. It was just the four “academies” UBC, UVic, TWU and the Pride operating in the fall season under BCRU control. Just to clarify when we talk about BCRU, it’s not just the leadership at BCRU, it’s the clubs as well. The BCRU is controlled in a large part by the membership, which are the clubs. There’s a fundamental conflict between the clubs and higher level rugby, in the case of the Coastal Cup it’s the conflict between club and region. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is. The attitude is, “you’re taking our best players away”. Regional rugby then gets pushed to the off season in BC, December/January or summer. Until that issue gets resolved through co-operation and a win-win scenario a club driven, bottom up approach isn’t going to bring the Coastal Cup back. It will likely take a top down, money-driven solution. Create the new structure, get BCRU to sanction it, operate the league independently. The four “academies” will likely join and then see if the regions will join or offer invitations to select “super clubs” who meet the requirements.
So yes for $10 million buy in and a $4 million operating budget, MLR in BC would be great but for a quarter million there’s a made in BC solution worth exploring.