It has been rumoured for some time but, Major League Rugby has now officially announced a new format for the 2020 season. With 3 new expansion teams (Rugby ATL, Old Glory DC, and the New England Free Jacks) the MLR will become a 12 team league. As a result, the league has decided to adopt conferences for next season. MLR will be split into an Eastern and Western Conference for next season. The Western Conference will feature Seattle Seawolves, San Diego Legion, Utah Warriors, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, and Austin Elite Rugby. The Eastern Conference will be comprised of the NOLA Gold, Toronto Arrows, Rugby United New York, Rugby ATL, Old Glory DC, and the New England Free Jacks.
The addition of 3 new teams and going to a conference-based format means that there must be additional changes to the schedule and the playoff format. Currently the league is set up so that everyone plays the other 8 teams twice (once at home, once away) for a total of 16 games. The 2020 season will once again be 16 games long. Each team will play the other 5 teams in their conference twice, once at home and once away, for a total of 10 games. Each team will then play the teams in the other conference once. Three of those games will be at home and 3 of them will be on the road. Additionally, every team will only receive 1 bye week next year. Week 1 will start on February 15th, 2020 and end on June 7th, 2020. For example, the Toronto Arrows schedule for next year could look something like this:
Week 1: @ NOLA Gold
Week 2: @ San Diego Legion
Week 3: @ Rugby ATL
Week 4: vs Rugby United New York
Week 5: vs Old Glory DC
Week 6: @ New England Free Jacks
Week 7: vs Glendale Raptors
Week 8: @ Austin Elite Rugby
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs NOLA Gold
Week 11: @ Houston SaberCats
Week 12: @ Rugby United New York
Week 13: vs Rugby ATL
Week 14: vs Seattle
Week 15: @ Old Glory DC
Week 16: vs Utah Warriors
Week 17 vs New England Free Jacks
The playoffs will start on June 13th, 2020 and expand from 4 teams to 6. The top 3 teams in each conference will qualify for the playoffs. The team that finishes the season 1st in their conference will receive a bye to the Conference Final. Teams ranked 2nd and 3rd will play each other with the winner moving on to meet the number 1 ranked team. The Conference Champions will then play for the Americas Rugby Shield.
Overall, I am a big fan of this format. It just makes sense if the league is expanding to 12 teams for 2020. Conferences will greatly cut down on travel costs and travel time which will benefit the league and clubs financially. Beyond that it is a relatively simple format that works well. I just hope that there is some sort of rotation set up for who you play in the other conference. This year if you are a season ticket holder, you get to see every MLR team live. Unfortunately, this is not possible under the new format. However, I still think it would be fun fans to be given the chance to see every MLR team within 2 years. Using my above example of a schedule above the Toronto Arrows would play Glendale, Seattle, and Utah at home. If this is the case, I think in the following year the Arrows should be playing Austin, Houston, and San Diego at home. This way fans are still given a chance to see star players in the other conference on a semi-regular basis.
Ultimately, it’s great to see the MLR is in a position to expand. The new format is simple and just makes sense for a 12 team league.