LA Giltinis take on the MLR with Matt Giteau leading the charge. But how big is the challenge facing the US game's newest franchise?
Making rugby in Los Angeles a success
It is because it’s so knowingly clichéd, so kitsch, that you forgive it. In Escape From LA’s infamous basketball scene, after the movie’s hero Snake Plissken drains a farcical basketball shot and the crowd begin chanting his name, a character played by Steve Buscemi slides into view. With tongue nearly poking through his cheek, he slyly remarks: “This town loves a winner!”
Undoubtedly all major cities want their sporting franchises to succeed, but in the gold-sewn sportscape of Los Angeles, is it vital to the survival of certain sports? And what about those new professional ventures trying simply to take root?
For the LA Giltinis, the latest and flashiest new player in Major League Rugby (MLR) – a side “named after a premium cocktail based on the Martini” – it is a question worth pondering. But in the current climate, the task of impacting an established market is less than ideal.
“The difficulty is that you’re building this in a pandemic,” says former Wallabies hooker Adam Freier, the Giltinis’ general manager. “We were given the licence (to join the league) probably a year ago, and we’ve had a year runway to get there.
“And I know that the backbone of any sporting team – the foundations that it sits upon – is its community. It’s definitely the mums and dads and the junior participants, but a community is also stakeholders like your local sponsors, trying to drive broadcasters.
“So we want to engage with the entire community, not just the grass roots. The difficulties with that side, on the community, right now, is we can’t get anywhere near them because of Covid. So we’ve had to change our strategy.”
For the new rugby outfit that has meant focusing on on-field performance and with it, recruiting some high-profile figures. Matt Giteau is the star attraction, joining fellow Wallabies Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dave Dennis, and out of Glasgow, Adam Ashe, DTH van der Merwe and Glenn Bryce. The squad, which undoubtedly has an Aussie flavour, is also laced with North Americans. And they want to hit the ground running like a nosebleed.
It is a fascinating challenge but while noise around MLR continues to grow that little bit louder, there are many elements of the job on the West Coast to analyse.
Last year, during the LA Sevens, Rugby World sought to understand rugby’s place in the Southern Californian ecosystem. There were tales of the Nineties, when a rivalry between San Diego-based OMBAC and Long Beach’s Belmont Shore dominated the game. USA Eagles were littered through the region, as were multicultural influences from famous rugby nations, especially, but not exclusively, from the Pacific.
Pulling that tradition into the pro game has taken a little time. But with the San Diego Legion now a force in MLR, a rivalry could only be good for the league and each brand. Particularly in a market where winners appear on billboards everywhere.
Freier explains: “Our focus right now is about building a brand and building an identity, and we have to have immediate on-field success. We can’t come into a town like Los Angeles, where the Lakers have just won it (the NBA) and the Dodgers have just won it (Major League Baseball), and be comfortable with mid-range.
“You talk to any sporting franchises as a start-up, it’s unusual for them to say ‘We’re here to win it’. But our strategy has been that way because we haven’t been able to engage with the village, the community, and the people here in Los Angeles, because of a pandemic.
“We’ve invested in driving hero stars and actually elevating the brand. We have some incredible ideas around academy programmes, the community, building ambassadors within those communities.”
Freier namechecks some of the six areas they can forge strong bonds with, including Ventura, Long Beach, South Central and Santa Monica. “There are all these great pockets where they play rugby, and it even goes all the way to the border of San Diego. We’ve got some strategies to implement when we get there but right now we can control the things that we can control and at the moment that is on-field performance and elevating the brand.”
Once again the issue of recognition comes in. Freier discusses the successful model of Los Angeles FC, the Major League Soccer side founded in 2014, who worked hard to grow their underground following and strike up an affinity with football fans in the area. An admirable example of how to take on established bodies – including a local rival, LA Galaxy – but something harder to achieve in the current climate.
And as Rugby World found out last year, there are some institutions that will always be at the forefront of the Angeleno’s mind.
“I haven’t been here all that long but LA is a very stratified society,” explains Bryan Curtis, editor-at-large of popular site The Ringer. “It’s Dodgers and Lakers. One is A, one is B, and it may change slightly. Then go down a level it’s USC and UCLA, the two colleges. Then go down a big level and it’s everybody else.”
Curtis was talking to us just days after the LA Sevens, but the big sporting story that week had been the memorial service for LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, which was held in and around the Staples Center.
His sentiment was backed up by one established NHL beat writer, who told us of ice hockey in the same area: “The LA Kings are a long-standing club but have almost always been overshadowed by the Lakers. The only exceptions would be when Wayne Gretzky played for them in the early Nineties, and perhaps to some degree in their Stanley Cup seasons.
“They have solid support and always have a celebrity or two in the crowd, but they don’t have the glitz the Lakers have always had. And it’s probably worth noting that the Dodgers are also still a huge factor in the LA market.”
When some franchises come up, the added razzle-dazzle is undoubtedly what ensures brand recall to those of us lengthy plane rides away – Jack Nicholson always had front-row seats for the Lakers, we recollect.
Curtis goes on: “We’ve talked about that idea of Hollywood glamour. These are Big City, famous teams. There’s not a whole bunch of them, right?
“You can call the Lakers and the Dodgers famous. Maybe the Kings, at a pinch. The other teams (in or around LA) don’t have national fan bases in the States at all. The Angels (also MLB) do not have a national fan base; the (Anaheim) Ducks do not have a national fan base.
“And it’s funny because there’s this crisis here: ‘What is going to happen to baseball?’ Baseball has fallen in the American estimation. There are baseball players that are obscure even in Los Angeles, who if they walked into this coffee shop today wouldn’t necessarily get 100% recognition.
“But the NBA has a certain worldwide resonance, especially online. So I think the fact that LA has a big, big famous NBA franchise, another big NBA franchise (the Clippers), both of which have gigantic superstars on them, gives LA a certain resonance too.”
LA Giltinis have some bona fide star names too, albeit rugby ones. Players that global rugby fans know and respect. They are also incredibly proud of their coaching ticket, with profiles on the rise like head coach Darren Coleman, assistant Stephen Hoiles and scrum coach Alex Corbisiero. The team will also play at the iconic Memorial Coliseum.
Realists will acknowledge how far off the bigger dogs they will be. But the fun challenge is creating something that can only come from their group.
Starting any new major sporting project in the States offers a terrain pockmarked by potential landmines. But when it starts just right, it can be an unbelievable rush.
In March 2019, Kelly McCrimmon, General Manager of the Vegas Golden Knights, told the Independent of starting a franchise from scratch: “I don’t think anyone expected the rate it happened.” The Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup finals in their very first year of competition.
Going on, he said: “We had good people, good player selection, with players having more opportunity than where they came from. They had been pushed around; had something to prove. Here, there was no hierarchy because everybody was brand new. The coaching staff did a great job.
“It was also an opportunity very few executives in the game have. It was uncharted. There were no players, no staff – you could create your very own culture. You need to have the right people who have to stand for the right things.”
New entities can also achieve incredible things regardless of what is built around them. In the first season of MLR, Seattle Seawolves triumphed despite – or possibly even because – they had severe coaching disruptions and they were heavily unfancied. They lost their head coach before a ball was kicked and many pundits had them finishing second last in the standings.
During a visit to Seattle a few weeks after they claimed the first-ever MLR title, star back-rower Riekert Hattingh couldn’t hide his grin when he told Rugby World that “A lot of people said we’d not be able to make it…”
In the land of Disney, triumphing over some form of adversity will always enrich your story. In an underdog league looking to grow too, there will be lines aplenty, because for every Chris Robshaw (San Diego Legion) and Andy Ellis (Rugby United New York), there will be several USA Eagles or up-and-comers who also swing a hammer for their own business or are part-time personal trainers and the like. And all of them have to grow the game.
Freier gets the value of the personnel involved. As he adds: “The beauty of our playing group is that they’re good humans. We know that in that group is not someone we’re just going to throw in and then throw out – the majority are signed on for more than one year. It’s a longer-term play.
“So I know that guys like Dave Dennis are incredible in the community. Matt Giteau is incredible with his fans on social and Ashley-Cooper is just brilliant in front of kids. The guy’s just a natural with this sort of stuff.
“We’ve picked this group to win, no doubt, but they all come with different qualities and traits. They’re good people and we’ve got some players coming in from all over the world, but also the majority of our squad from North America.
“So we’ve recruited on that principle: they need to fit in culturally, and then we want to be able to align them with a school, a local charity and potentially a local business. So they are not just giving back to the community but can also learn as well. We’ve picked a certain type of DNA for our squad.”
Freier proudly says a few times that he is “not a guerilla marketer”. He wants to forge lasting partnerships and for aspects of the business to be easily identifiable. Giltinis play potentially being shown on television right after NBA or NHL action could help.
The jokes will come about their name and the outlook. Giltinis are named after a cocktail, the same as fellow MLR side the Austin Gilgronis, who have the same owners. The managements of these sides are autonomous (Freier says to think more of the Red Bull franchises in football and Formula One), but it is an interesting quirk of the division.
And yet, while the name may suggest something more akin to the corporate entities of Japan’s Top League, the management say they are also looking to clubs like the Exeter Chiefs or ACT Brumbies for notes. How they marry their on-field work with projects off it and their corporate and sponsorship plans.
Add into that a Giteau and they hope it’s a potent mix. Freier says: “He is our David Beckham of the MLR, make no question.” Giltinis truly believe the quality of operator they have brought in, with their ability to gel other players together, will make telling impacts in a short period of time. And they want North American stars to come through too, though it will need to happen organically.
So while the management are excited about the emergence of John ‘Muscles’ Ryberg on the wing or young scrum-half Cristian Rodriguez, who they unearthed in a local trial, everything will be done as one. And all the time with a sense of fun. The brand identity will be front and centre at the Coliseum, with plans for a party on the field and off it – several times Freier refers to a day post-Covid with “fans in the stands with cans in their hands”.
But underneath it all, the promise is for a side who never stop working hard. Let’s look out for the pay-off.
Can’t get to the shops? Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet. Subscribe to the print edition for magazine delivery to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.