Major League Rugby shuts down season rather than go down uncertain COVID-19 path

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Major League Rugby has called off the remainder of the 2020 season, deciding it is better to call a halt to games now than keep going down an uncertain path due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

For MLR, it's a sudden end to the 12-team league's third season — one that started with new franchises in Atlanta, New England and Washington, D.C., and some-big time player additions in South Africa's Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira and former All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Rene Ranger.

"We believe it is ultimately the correct decision as we factored in health and safety risks for all parties," MLR commissioner George Killebrew said in a statement. "I want to ensure our fans that there is no doubt MLR will be back in 2021 and will emerge bigger and better than ever before."

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Like many leagues, MLR had already announced March 12 it was suspending matches for 30 days to assess the impact of the virus.

The premature end to the season is unfortunate news for many, including Canada coach Kingsley Jones, who had some 50 of his players employed in MLR. Thursday's decision means that they won't be playing ahead of July internationals against the French Barbarians in Montreal and versus Italy in Halifax — if those games go ahead as scheduled.

The season ends with the second-year Toronto Arrows, whose roster is filled with Canadian internationals, second in the standings with a 4-1-0 record. The Arrows will miss out on 11 games, including all seven home matches.

The regular season was set to end May 31 with playoffs in June.

Mark Winokur, the Arrows' vice-president and general manager, said the league was always "on a short runway" given facility rentals, length of contracts, length of visas for foreign players and national team commitments for July internationals.

"At the end of the day, the problem was that without some certainty that we could get a meaningful season completed by the end of June, the risk was simply too great," he said. "And the call by the commissioner was 'Look, we could roll the dice and lose. Or we could use this as an opportunity to retrench, build on what we've done the first two years, go into 2021 in a healthy cash-flow position and go from there and build on it.'"

While a lot of the owners wanted to play as many games as possible, "it just started to look increasingly unlikely that we would get away with it," said Winokur.

"When you looked at the spreadsheet, we were getting to a point where it wasn't making sense any more," he added. "And when you run the numbers and look at where we would be if we stopped, we would be in a very, very strong position going into 2021 — stronger than we've ever been. And that was more attractive to the owners."

While the Arrows had yet to stage a game in Toronto this season because of a lopsided schedule caused by the Canadian winter, Winokur said the other side of the coin is that the franchise had not yet run into some of its heavy costs.

While the team makes money from home games, it also has to pay for the television production costs to air them under league rules.

MLR teams operate under a US$500,000 salary cap. Winokur said the league, a single-entity structure, is working on a settlement for players for the rest of the season.

"The players will be well-compensated for this," he said. "I can't say what the percentage would be but they'll be well-taken care of. They will not be left high and dry."

Another factor in calling a halt to the season was the fact that borders are closing around the globe and foreign players were facing difficulties in getting home. That was not such an issue with Toronto, which has just seven imports — from Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay. Austin, in contrast, had 19 foreigners.

Winokur has told his import players they can go home. Some have opted to stay, feeling they are safer here than anywhere else.

In the meantime, many of the Arrows continue to train. Winokur believes the team may be able to play three or four exhibition games later this year.

"We're not cutting staff. We're maintaining the ship as it is. We're looking at this as big picture. Heading into 2021, we'll be in a strong position. We think we'll get most of our players back, we'll keep most of our staff."

While rugby may be "pretty low priority" in the current scheme of things, Winokur said the Arrows are "focused on finishing the job in '21."

"We really thought we had a good shot to win this year, that's probably the most disappointing part."

The league is set to expand to 14 teams next year with the addition of Dallas and Los Angeles.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2020.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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