Unleashing the Beast: MLR Needs to Capitalize on Star Players
Old Glory DC dropped a bomb on Major League Rugby this week when they announced a massive, monumental signing for themselves and the league. From a marketing standpoint, they did it right. Tuesday night saw the cryptic message encouraging everyone to tune into their announcement of a "Champion" joining the squad.
The speculation began as fans and media started to guess who the mystery player could be. Eventually we got the hints of "he beat the All Blacks' and a certain high-profile player making insta posts from the east coast. The rumours were there, but everyone eagerly awaited the announcement at noon on Wednesday:
Old Glory DC had signed the Tendai Mtawarira, starting loosehead prop of the 2019 Rugby World Cup Champion Springboks! At 34 years old, the man affectionately known as The Beast dominated at the RWC. His performance against England in the final was especially spectacular as it was clear, they had no answers for him and Dan Cole was significantly overmatched in the scrum.
Mtawarira retired from international rugby following the World Cup to give himself the storybook ending. Mtawarira is an absolute legend of the game, one of the best Springboks of all time, and one of the best loosehead props ever. Major League Rugby fans could barely contain themselves on social media.
I could go on forever about Mtawarira's resume. The RWC victory, the 117 Springbok caps (3rd most all time), man of the match against the British and Irish Lions in 2009, a Rugby Championship victory, Tri Nations Champion, a record setting 159 caps for the Sharks (most by a South African in Super Rugby), 3 Currie Cups, a Barbarian, and a World Rugby Player of the Decade (2010s) nominee.
Mtawarira has made tighthead props cower in fear for over the entirety of his career. His defense is great, his carrying ability is great (aided by the loud “BEEAASSTT” chant when he touches the ball, and his scrummaging is unmatched by anyone in the world. He’s been the best prop in the world for over a decade.
If you don’t believe me, ask Phil Vickery back in 2009 and ask Dan Cole after the 2019 RWC Final.
The Beast turned down way more money to play in Europe. He could have made $800,000 per year, instead he chose to play in a league with a salary cap of $500,000 (making the max $45,000).
In the press releases, he kept talking about how he is coming here to help grow rugby in North America, be a role model for the African American youth in DC, and that he just wants to give back to this great game! It's actually unbelievable! Which is why we can't screw this up.
Mtawarira joins a long list of elite players from tier 1 nations coming to MLR. San Diego signed Ma’a Nonu, RUNY signed Mathieu Bastereaud (and still have Ben Foden), Colorado signed Rene Ranger and Digby Ioane, and the New England Free Jacks signed Kensuke Hatakeyama (not technically a tier 1 nation, but Japan is on the verge of becoming one).
The droves of Canadian, American, Uruguayan, Fijian, Tongan, and Samoan talent already in the league are now being surrounded by a supporting cast of RWC Champions, Springboks, All Blacks, Wallabies, Maori All Blacks, Les Blues, Brave Blossoms, Roses, Pumas, and more elite talent from across the globe.
Without a doubt, 2020 will be the best year ever to be a rugby fan in North America! We have to translate this into growing the game.
Of course, there will always be those that argue whenever players like Mtawarira or any of the other big name players sign that "they don't have name recognition in North America '', or "the people that know who he is are already watching MLR ''.
It may be true, and perhaps rugby does not have someone of David Beckham's global popularity. However, if we (the North American rugby community) can not turn Tendai Mtawarira, Ma'a Nonu, Mathieu Bastareaud, Rene Ranger, or any of the other players into household names, then that is on us.
As we wind down 2019, many “Best of the Decade” lists will begin to appear. World Rugby has already declared Mtawarira and Nonu as two of the top 16 best players of the decade. Many media outlets will no doubt have a "Team of the Decade" that includes Mtawarira at 1 and Nonu at 12.
We have been blessed to have two of the best players of all-time in Major League Rugby next year. They must play a major role in growing the game on North American soil.
It’s great that in the press release and social media posts since he signed, Mtawarira has been vocal about how he intends to grow the game in D.C. and North America as a whole. We now have one of the best props ever eagerly willing to help raise the profile of rugby in North America.
Having a cynical attitude is unproductive. If people don't know who any of these players are, inform them. Explain why Mtawarira or Nonu, or Foden, or Ioane is a big deal. Go even further and explain why some of our own talent like Lucas Rumball or Mike Te’o is a big deal.
If these guys are not household names in North America, we need to put in the effort so they can become household names. The marketing teams of the clubs, the media, and even the fans need to capitalize on these players in our league.
For the media, we need to hype these guys up! It’s part of our role, not just reporting on transactions or writing match recaps, it's also about promoting the league. Sports fans who have a casual interest in rugby may not know these names, but by producing content around them, they will.
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I wrote a match preview for every Arrows game last year and often included a "3 things to watch" section. I guarantee when the Arrows play Old Glory DC for the first time, that section will have "THE BEAST" as the biggest reason to watch. Just like it will have Nonu, Basteraued or any other star.
If you don't think they are huge names yet, help to get them there. There is probably a lot of people in North America who don't know who Sonny Bill Williams is. However, after he ended up on Sportsnet Central for signing with the Toronto Wolfpack, a lot more people do.
To me the coverage that the Williams signing received is evidence that rugby players from around the globe can be (and are) big names in North America. However, then can only fully achieve that status if the media gives them the coverage they deserve.
Clubs also need to incorporate all of these players into their own marketing. The NOLA Gold have already done a great job of billing their home opener versus Old Glory DC as "Beauty vs the Beast" All teams should be doing something similar.
Just because Mtawarira is not on your team does not mean you can’t use him in marketing. Hype up the fact that these elite players are coming to your city. Obviously, you need to hype up your own players too. If you’re Colorado, mention that you have an All Black and a Wallaby on your squad and feature them in ticket promotions and all other types of marketing.
Sports fans that are just casually interested in rugby (or even not interested at all) may not know the name Rene Ranger, but most sports fans know who the All Blacks are. Use that name (as much as you legally can anyways) to help sell tickets. If the clubs and media treat these players like they are a huge deal, they will soon become massive names.
All of this extends to fans too. If you have friends that are on the fence about coming to a game use some of these elite players to try to convince your friends to come out to a match.
If your team is playing Old Glory mention that they have Mtawarira, a Springbok who is the best prop in the world. If they don’t know who the Springboks are, inform them. Mention that they are the reigning Rugby World Cup Champions, or even just say “it’s the team from the Matt Damon movie”. Whatever you need to say to bring more people out to a game is fine with me.
It’s undeniable that we are entering a golden age of rugby in North America. Major League Rugby is taking off as the first stable professional rugby union competition we have ever had. The 2020 season presents an unprecedented opportunity for the game of rugby to grow in North America. MLR has expanded to 12 teams with two more on the way in 2021.
The 2019 season saw Ben Foden join RUNY and he may have helped pave the way for plenty of elite talent to arrive from overseas in 2020. The collection of talent that North American rugby fans will get to watch on home soil this year is incredible.
What is even better is that many of these players seem genuinely interested in growing the game on this continent. Players like Mtawarira, Nonu, and Bastareaud will no doubt stir up interest in this league.
However, everyone; the league, the clubs, the media, and the fans, need to do their part in turning that interest into packed stadiums. We have never seen this level of talent on North American rugby pitches before and we need to capitalize on this opportunity.