Major League Rugby have also lost Toronto Arrows ahead of the new season
Two teams in two major North American cities collapsing in consecutive weeks can’t be good news for Major League Rugby.
Just barely a week after Toronto Arrows announced they were closing up shop and wouldn’t play in the 2024 MLR season, Rugby New York, also known as the Ironworkers, said the same thing on Wednesday.
MLR officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Professional rugby has struggled in many places around the world in recent years, so MLR’s struggles aren’t all that surprising. But it’s still concerning news for a league that has offered opportunities to a whole class of North American players that didn’t exist before the league was founded in 2018.
MLR’s brand of ‘professional’ has been debatable at times — more than once, a team has missed payroll and many deals are part-time — but the training environment has been a full-time one, something that didn’t exist for more than a handful of players in the USA and Canada a decade ago.
Both situations, it’s understood, came down to a lack of cash. The Arrows’ majority investor, Bill Webb, died this summer and no new investor was prepared to fund operations. Rugby New York didn’t suffer a sudden loss of an owner, they faced a more simple issue: the didn’t have anyone ready to fund operations for the coming year. RNY had gone through several ownership groups since their founding in 2018 and it’s understood the most recent major funders, Bolton Equities, weren’t prepared to carry the load anymore.
And so the idea of professional rugby in the Big Apple is on pause, again.
Canadian International Andrew Coe played the last two seasons for Rugby New York and was set for a third. He confirmed the players were told on Wednesday morning that their team was no more. The news caught him off-guard, he admitted, but he also said he wasn’t all that surprised, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Arrows.
“It’s MLR so you kinda need to always be on your toes,” he said.
“Coming from the sevens programme and RC (Rugby Canada), I’m almost used to being treated like a commodity. So I have that mindset that you need to be ready, have a backup plan.”
The timing of this all is difficult on the players. “It this happened a couple month ago, it would be easier to deal with, to find a new team,” he said. The league may find him and his contracted colleagues new homes via a dispersal draft, but Coe wasn’t sure whether he’d simply pack up and go wherever he was assigned.
“I don’t know. It’s still pretty fresh. I’d have to think about it.”
Former Oxford Blue and USA Eagle Nick Civetta played two seasons for New York. Now retired, he lives in Oxford with his English wife and works in green energy by day. By night, he’s become a rugby union organiser. Clearly, the end of RNY was sad from a playing perspective and frustrating from a league transparency perspective.
“The picture in New York, it wasn’t exactly painted for us,” he said. “It’s tough to grapple with.”
He’s pressing on with a unionisation vote for the league’s players, scheduled for February. He believes giving the athletes a collective voice will strengthen the league itself. All the major sports leagues in North America operate with collective bargaining agreements between the competitions and the players.
Civetta and his colleagues had preliminary talks with MLR last spring about voluntarily recognising their union but those went nowhere. And so now they’re following a formal, legal process to be certified.
“If you have a collective bargaining agreement then you have clarity on the path forward. If you don’t, the league can move the goal-posts,” he said. “As an investor, I think (a CBA) brings cost clarity. It sets the player budget.”
Civetta is still optimistic about the future of the league, even after the loss of New York and Toronto, and the doubts around a proposed new squad in Los Angeles.
“I think the future of the MLR is bright. My opinion on that hasn’t changed. I fundamentally believe the league itself isn’t going anywhere,” Civetta said.
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