Major League Rugby kicks off its fourth season on Saturday with league chiefs confident over the long-term prospects for the sport in North America after Covid-19 wiped out almost the entire 2020 campaign.
Twelve teams from across the United States and Canada will kick off the 16-game season with dreams of advancing to the championship final on August 1, which will be broadcast in the US on CBS television in primetime.
The competition kicks off on Saturday when Old Glory DC from Washington travel to Louisiana to take on NOLA Gold in New Orleans.
Although Covid-19 numbers across the United States have declined in recent weeks, prompting several cities and regions to relax lockdown restrictions, the spectre of coronavirus is looming over the new season.
Last year, the league abandoned the season after only five rounds of fixtures, and the impact of Covid-19 continues to be seen in the fact two teams -- the Toronto Arrows and San Diego Legion -- will start the new season based several hundreds miles outside their home market. Another club, the Dallas Jackals expansion franchise, withdrew from the new season altogether.
Major League Rugby commissioner George Killebrew is confident that the league's Covid-19 protocols will allow this year's competition to be completed on schedule. MLR officials have absorbed the lessons from how other professional leagues have adapted to Covid-19, Killebrew said.
"Our Covid protocols are at the forefront of everything we're doing, trying to make sure we're ready to go on March 20th, get 16 matches in and operate the finals on August 1," Killebrew told AFP.
- Broader fanbase -
"We've been lucky that we've been able to follow a lot of the other professional leagues that have gone before us -- the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, college football. We're in pretty good shape overall. It's now up to the teams."
Although testing will not be conducted on the same scale as the multi-billion-dollar juggernauts of the NFL and NBA, Killebrew is confident a centralized regime that will test players three times a week should hold up.
"From what we can do from a budget and safety scenario, we're doing it," Killebrew said. "Before anyone gets on an airplane to another city, they're getting tested and we'll have the results."
Killebrew said that while last year's shutdown was "incredibly frustrating", the league and its clubs have tried to turn enforced absence into a positive by honing their business plans for their respective markets.
"This league has never really had an opportunity to have the local teams really focus in on the fundamentals -- not necessarily the rugby side -- but about how to become a really good entertainment option," Killebrew told AFP.
"We want to look make sure we're not just drawing hardcore rugby fans, but also attracting their friends and family to join with us. That's kind of what we've been doing in the offseason."
- World Cup hosts? -
The new season will also welcome a new smattering of veteran international stars. Former Australia internationals Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley Cooper have joined the new LA Giltinis franchise, who will play home games in the iconic surroundings of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Former England captain Chris Robshaw, meanwhile, will embark on a new chapter of his career with the San Diego Legion, who opted to play in Las Vegas, Nevada, due to the Covid-19 situation in California.
Killebrew took over Major League Rugby in 2019 after nearly three decades at the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, whose billionaire owner Mark Cuban played rugby in college and is a huge fan of the sport.
Cuban recommended Killebrew take the MLR leadership role, believing rugby could benefit from the commercial experience accumulated in 28 years in the NBA.
"I didn't know a ton about rugby, but I'd worked for Mark Cuban and Mark's first love was rugby," Killebrew said.
Killebrew believes establishing Major League Rugby could help the United States mount a successful bid for a future Rugby World Cup.
While 2027 has been mentioned, Killebrew believes the more likelier slot is 2031, citing competition from the 2026 World Cup and 2028 Los Angeles Olympics if the US attempts to bid for 2027.
"If we were to get the World Cup in 2031, our league would be 14 years old," Killebrew said.
"When the soccer World Cup first came to America, there was no professional soccer league. If we're a 22- to 32- team league in 2031, the building blocks are in place to have a successful tournament."