Major League Rugby (MLR), North America’s top-tier rugby union competition, has suffered a major blow after announcing its Rugby New York team, also known as the Ironworkers, has officially withdrawn from the league.
The Ironworkers, league champions in 2022, have become the second team in the space of a fortnight to withdraw from the league after the Toronto Arrows also exited in late November.
MLR has not made public any reasons why the Ironworkers have folded. The club, which had been owned by construction magnate James Kennedy, has likely been affected by poor revenue streams and high costs for the infant league, which began in 2018 and was stunted by the Covid-19 pandemic that caused the cancellation of the 2020 season.
The announcement was a sudden shock, given that only a month ago the team signed a multi-year partnership with US equipment rental company Sunbelt, and that the club still offers 2024 memberships on its website, although they are no longer available for purchase.
In the case of the Toronto Arrows, the team’s statement on its withdrawal said the passing of the club’s president and general partner, Bill Webb, was “too great a challenge for the club to overcome.”
All of this means the 2024 edition of the competition, set to begin in early 2024, will be forced to go ahead with 10 teams, the fewest participants it has had since 2019.
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This is the second consecutive year where two teams from the league have folded, with the LA Giltinis and the Austin Gilgronis being suspended from the league ahead of the 2023 season for financial irregularities.
The Giltinis won the MLR championship in 2022, meaning this is also the second consecutive year a former MLR champion has folded, posing questions over the financial viability of the fledgling rugby competition.
Despite this, the league has made efforts in recent months to boost commercial revenue, partnering with premium experiences company Legends to attract funding and grow the competition.
Through the tie-up, Legends manages global partnerships, digital marketing, and business intelligence for the league in order to “drive fan engagement and optimize revenue generation.”
The success of MLR in North America could be a key component in the future success of the 2031 men’s and 2033 women’s Rugby World Cups (RWC), both of which are being hosted in the US.
The US failed to qualify for the 2023 RWC but will qualify automatically as hosts for the 2031 edition, and the strength of the country’s domestic competition could be key to any performances the team has at the tournament, as well as local interest from potential US fans which will be necessary to deem the competition a financial and cultural success.