MLR Reveals Key Dates for 2021
Source: Craig Boudreaux / NOLA Gold Rugby
In a massive announcement on Tuesday morning Major League Rugby announced a few key dates and the format for the 2021 MLR season! The new return dates were met with great excitement from fans and players alike.
The 2021 season was originally planned to kick-off in February. However, the current situation has seen the league push their calendar back. Training camp will open for all 13 teams on February 15th, 2021 with the regular season kicking off on March 20th, 2021. An 18-week season will follow with teams playing 16 games.
Following the regular season, the top two teams from each conference will meet in the playoffs with the conference champions moving on to play for the MLR Shield on August 1st, 2021.
The 2021 season will be welcoming two expansion teams; the Dallas Jackals and Los Angeles Giltinis. This expansion will ultimately see the league grow from 12 to 13 teams after the Colorado Raptors withdrew from the league at the beginning of the extended off-season. A bid for a 14th team was put forth by the group Kanaloa Hawai’i. However, the bid fell short and Kanaloa may have burnt a bridge with the league after their response to not being accepted into MLR.
The league will keep the same conference format that was established in 2020. Both Dallas and LA will be placed in the seven-team Western Conference alongside the Austin Gilgronis, Houston SaberCats, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, and Utah Warriors. The Eastern Conference includes the same six teams as last season; Rugby ATL, New England Free Jacks, NOLA Gold, Old Glory DC, Rugby United New York, and Toronto Arrows.
The biggest structural change to the season was the elimination of a playoff round. The plan for 2020 was to have the top 3 teams in each conference advance. The first-place teams would receive a bye to the conference finals with teams 2 and 3 battling for the right to play them. My guess is that this was done to accommodate the extra bye week needed with an uneven number of teams in the league.
The 2020 season would have had 16 regular-season games played over 17 weeks with 3 weeks of the Championship Series. The 2021 season will feature 16 regular-season games over 18 weeks followed by 2 weeks of the Championship Series. Ultimately, this keeps the entire season from the opening kickoff to lifting the Shield at 20 weeks long.
The league did not offer up any further details at this time. However, if you want an idea of how a 13-team schedule could hypothetically look, you can check out this article I wrote back in May.
Commissioner George Killebrew also sat down with Martin Pengelly of the Guardian for an article that accompanied the announcement. In that article, Killebrew stated that the league does have contingency plans to shorten the season or create a bubble if needed.
One benefit of the season starting in late March as opposed to February could be a more balanced schedule. As it currently stands, teams in cold weather climates such as Toronto, Massachusetts, or New York have been faced with the challenge of really unbalanced schedules as far as home and away games are concerned. In 2019, Toronto famously had an even 8 and 8 split. The entire first half of their season was on the road with the entire 2nd half at home.
In 2020, Toronto was not scheduled to play a game in front of their home fans until week 9. New England and New York were scheduled to begin their home matches in week 6, the week the MLR season was halted. The opposite end of the spectrum is teams in a warmer climate like Austin. The Gilgronis were scheduled to end the season with 5 out of 7 games on the road.
Hopefully, the spring start can alleviate some of this. Spreading out the home games more evenly throughout the season will also make it easier for fans to commit to attending more (or all) of their favourite team’s matches (provided fans are allowed to be in attendance).
A perceived downside to the season running from March until August could be the conflict with the international test window. However, Bryan Ray is reporting that it unlikely any international rugby in North America happens before the 2021 Americas Rugby Championship which kicks off later in August. Therefore, there would be no conflict.
In Pengelly’s article, Killebrew gave LA owner (and Austin owner) Adam Gilchrist a huge vote of confidence. Pengelly quoted Killebrew in say that Gilchrist “is one of our strongest owners”. I would like to see Gilchrist prove he is deserving of that praise. Gilchrist and the league need to start marketing the Giltinis, or at the very least act like they exist.
The Giltinis were the only team in the league to not acknowledge the announcement on social media. The backlash for the team name was bad, but this silence from the franchise is a lot worse. I don’t care what the team is called, but the franchise’s marketing game needs to be stepped up. Especially now that there is a clear start date for the 2021 season.
After the announcement, Major League Rugby fans began counting down to the 2021 season. As of this article, there are 145 until training camp opens, 178 days until the season starts, and 312 days until a champion is crowned!
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