Rugby Football Club Los Angeles is the latest MLR side in the West Coast metropolis

“Good morning at KJLH, your favorite LA radio station. The sun is shining brightly and welcomes another match for our Rugby Football Club Los Angeles. Don’t forget to head to the Dignity Health Sports Park and support our super team.”

Imagine it. This announcement might become a normal feature for one of the newest entrants in the MLR, RFC Los Angeles, the second franchise hailing from the sunny and vibrant Californian hotspot. After a world of uncertainty, the MLR recovered from the withdrawal of the Toronto Arrows and the New York Ironworkers, fostering representation in Florida, North Carolina, and, of course, California. Will this be a new era for a competition that seeks to create a passionate fanbase? 

For Pete Sickle, CEO of RFC LA, the project will only make sense if it is built towards its community. “Everything we do has to be about welcoming the fans to our community and team,” he says.

“We want to inspire kids who haven’t played rugby to play it, and those who are already playing it to pursue their dreams and become local heroes. We want to have a different approach compared to other professional sports in America, as we want to have our players involved with the LA community. Not just showing up for a picture, but working with local youth teams, coaching, interacting and forming relationships.”

Los Angeles rugby

Gabriel Ibitoye played for Tel Aviv Heat (Getty Images)

There are really two start points for the RFC Los Angeles story. One linked to the former Atlanta side, as part of the playing squad and coaching staff was retained and relocated to Los Angeles. The second root comes from the Tel Aviv Heat, an Israeli franchise that competes in the Rugby Super Cup. Most of the RFC LA board are from the Tel Aviv Heat organisation, as for example, Pete Sickle, who will have to split his time between Europe and North America. The official link between both universes isn’t official, but he shared where they are at the moment.

“The short answer: it is still in the works, but there’s nothing formal as of yet. The lead investor for RFC LA is an existing shareholder of the Tel Aviv Heat, and so we have to sort it out. The Heat have played three seasons in the Rugby Europe Super Cup, and unfortunately, it’s a short season, which makes it hard for the same squad, as it doesn’t build value for players, fans, the global digital community, and for commercial sponsors.

“But, as the MLR season doesn’t overlap with the Super Cup, and actually is consecutive, and the competitive standard is basically the same, we thought there was an opportunity to create a strong strategic alliance. In a formal, official sense, there’s no link, but from a player standpoint there are at least five players who have contracts with both franchises.” 

Fijian stalwart Semi Kunatani and former Harlequins Niall Saunders are two of those units who will contribute to both franchises, creating a more concrete pathway to reinforce the Tel Aviv Heat and RFC LA growth. This player link was built to keep fans from the Heat focused on these names, but also attract them towards a new team, promoting an intercontinental passion.

los Angeles rugby

Semi Kunatani in 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)

“We will give them a new team to support, as five of the best players of the Heat will be in LA for the next six months,” Sickle adds. “That builds a different value proposition for the fans, and if we flip it around, it will also apply to the RFC LA fans. They will be able to support not only one team for a short span of time but two over a bigger period.”

But can a team like the Heat build a real base of supporters? The only real experience outside the Super Cup was in a friendly match played against Saracens in November 2022. The stellar Premiership side hosted the match that would end with the Israelis earning a surprising victory, being their first taste of stardom. This fuelled a wave of social media engagement, something RFC LA wishes to replicate.

There are some lingering doubts around the Super Cup survival, a hurdle that will have to be tackled as and when. 

Sickle goes on: “We have a lot of optimism for the MLR between where it is now and where it will be in 2031, and hopefully we can expand, for example, to the women’s game. The in-game quality of the Super Cup is great, as we’ve seen with Portugal or Georgia, as it builds a pathway for players to grow and be prepared for more demanding challenges. Unfortunately, as a commercial enterprise, the Super Cup’s future isn’t clear, and it is hard to make long-term plans around this. It hasn’t been properly promoted as a commercial league, and this isn’t a criticism of Rugby Europe, who have tried to take it to another level.”

Building a team from scratch, challenging the top, and fighting for success isn’t an easy path, and Sickle shares his worries for the future of the game outside the top sides, saying: “Rugby is not Moneyball. You can’t just pick a bunch of players and hidden gems, and win.

Anton Segner

Anton Segner for the Blues (AFP/Getty Images)

“Rugby takes years, and years of structures, systems, development, etc. And when one nation or club doesn’t provide it, you will have youngsters like Anton Segner opting to play for the All Blacks rather than the nation he started playing in – Germany in this case. With RFC LA, we want to be a world-class team, win games, titles, supporters, and be a top organisation. We have to provide top-of-the-class branding and marketing; do events, and the rest of it. It will take time, there’s no magic formula, as we need more participants and a real rugby community.”

Any team competing at a top senior level dreams of becoming an inspirational force, but the shattered falls of Giltinis, Arrows, and Gilgronis are raw examples of how fragile elite rugby can be. Even with those failures fresh in the memory, Pete Sickle feels optimistic about RFC Los Angeles’s future, saying: “Honestly, the first season will be to communicate who we are, build a rugby community, upholding the rugby values, associate our team with that kind of fun that you can only find in southern California, and everything that makes LA an attractive city. If we can do this, we will be on our way to building a top organisation. These are the standards we are walking towards.”

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