Full Contact CEO Season 4
Ahead of the start of the 2023 MLR Season Alex Magleby caught up with the now-former and incredibly successful MLR Commissioner George Killebrew. George provided our listeners with some encouraging updates and partnerships ahead of the 6th Major League Rugby Season
Looking back with the Commissioner
Ahead of joining on as Commissioner of the MLR in time for the start of the third season, Commissioner Killebrew was a longtime executive with the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks are famously owned by Mark Cuban who played Rugby at Indian University. George had been a part of a successful NBA franchise for almost 30 years, he knew how to run a team, and more importantly, he knew how to run a business.
“For an upstart sports league entering season 6, we should be starting to get in our groove.” George compares the early years of MLR to MLS and draws the comparison between the two leagues saying that by season 6 of the MLS, they were really starting to gain their sea legs. He also mentions that was when a major mead deal started to come into play. He gets the sense when we talk to teams that it’s a little bit easier coming into season 6.
Magleby points out that this time last year the performance center had not been built yet, and they had new employees just joining the organization. The Free Jacks academy is also up and running and producing great players. “We’re learning how to share this product much better than we did at the beginning of last season.”
Consistency is Key
“If you look at the history of sports and teams that win championships, there is one word that kind of bubbles up to the top in my view. And that is consistency.”
Killebrew is alluding to not only consistency in winning but sometimes it’s the consistency within that team’s ecosystem. Whether that’s running a system or a well-oiled back-of-the-house machine, consistency is sometimes bigger than talent.
The fact of the matter is that even though these teams are going into their 6th year of the league, there still will be curveballs but they’ll be able to handle them better than they have before.
Killebrew also believes that the teams in the league have a great appreciation for everything else you have to do to run a successful sports entertainment business. “They gotta look at all the mundane things that we do day-to-day, like ticket sales and sponsorship, sales and marketing, local broadcast agreements, and community relations, and all those things that go into, you know, the front office of a team. And I feel like there’s more appreciation for that today with our groups, rather than I just want to put the best team on the field and try to win the shield.”
Attendance is Growing
“We’ve not doubled our attendance from when I first started. So there were more people that attended an MLR match last year. You know, it doubled in size from year one and there were 75,000 new net attendees. It’s those kinds of things on how you grow and build a league, and we have about 10 of those metrics we look at every day, and they’re all growing.”
The past year the Free Jacks were featured heavily on Fox Sports 1 and their numbers were in the same range as NHL and MLS games. Both leagues have very lucrative advertising and media deals.
When the league first brokered a deal with Fox Sports it was exclusively with Fox Sports 2. Over time the ratings went up and the league was able to jump to FS1, a channel that is consistently a household name.
“And to give you an idea on FS1 sports viewership last year we had a 69% growth. We had 330,000 you know, additional households tune in. So if you’re Fox and you’re sitting back and looking at US vis-a-vis other programming, it’s easy to make that decision to convert more games from FS2 to FS1.”
The Rugby Network
At the same time we’re seeing growth on traditional cable, we’re also seeing tremendous success with the Rugby Network. TRN has had a 150% subscriber growth rate season to season.
Originally going into it, “the goal was to get 25,000 subscribers according to the people at RugbyPass. That number was achieved midseason, the first year it debuted. At the time of recording TRN has 118,00 subscribers.
“It’s also turned into a real recruiting tool as international players can now see what’s going on in MLR in years four and five going into this year.”
“And I get a lot of feedback from players that, you know, come to us and say, geez, we, we’d like to get over there and play. We’re, we’ve been following your progress on TRN, and what we’re seeing is the level of play in Major League Rugby has really grown exponentially. The level of coaching has grown exponentially and the level of officiating has grown as well.”
And from an outsider’s perspective, TRN has been an incredible success for the league. It positioned itself as a leading rugby social media account and it gives fans deeper access to the league.
What else has gone right?
One of the biggest challenges the MLR has is storytelling. The rugby can’t necessarily be a stand-alone product, especially in a new market like the United States. We have all these characters in the league and the teams need to take advantage of them.
“These are some of the most entertaining athletes I’ve been around, hands down.”
It’s up to the league leaders to give these players the platform to become the household names they deserve to be and are within the team. Teams are starting to do that, especially the New England Free Jacks who have shone the spotlight on The Eagle and our hometown hero Cam Davidowicz.
Another great example is getting the players into the community more which is something The Free Jacks are striving to do. This includes having the players come to school as well as spending time at the YMCA.
There’s no doubt that the addition of an MLR team in Chicago is a great thing for the league. Chicago has been host to some incredible international test matches including Ireland’s famous win over the All Blacks.
But the addition of The Hounds was not an overnight phenomenon. It was a three-year process to bring them into the league.
“You have to find the right investors. You have to find the right facility, which you guys now have been through, and you found your home. It’s just not like you write a check and join a league and you gotta put together a great staff. You have to put together a great business plan. You have to figure out where you are in youth rugby in that city, and how are you going to bring them all into the fold and grow them.”
We’re also seeing the addition of the Miami Sharks in 2024.
It’s early in the 2023 MLR season and there’s a lot more to come. Subscribe to Full Contact CEO for more episodes.