OVERTIME

Utah Warriors build rugby inroads.

 By John Coon

Building a thriving pro sports team from scratch isn’t an easy task. But it’s a battle the Utah Warriors are winning.
With one Major League Rugby season in the books, Utah’s newest pro rugby team already has a cadre of loyal fans. Drawing fans to home matches didn’t prove to be a problem for the Warriors.
Their opening exhibition game against the Glendale Raptors at Rio Tinto Stadium brought out 9,186 fans. When Utah made its official debut at Zions Bank Academy Stadium two weeks later, 3,143 fans turned out to witness an 80-12 victory over Alberta in the final exhibition match before the start of MLR play.
“The support for the Utah Warriors by the Utah community has just been absolutely awesome,” said Alf Daniels, the Warriors head coach. “I can’t say enough for it. I come from a country where rugby is our religion. I’ve coached teams in front of crowds that have sometimes been twice the size of what we’ve had here, but nowhere near the noise, the excitement and the energy.”
Rugby planted deep roots in the Beehive State long ago. Nationally dominant rugby programs at the high school and college levels helped put the sport in the spotlight.
Highland emerged as the nation’s top high school rugby program under head coach Larry Gelwix, shortly after the club’s formation in 1976. The Rams posted a 418-10 record during Gelwix’s tenure and claimed 20 national high school championships from 1985 until he retired in 2011.
BYU emerged as a national power in college rugby during the 2000s and have remained one of the top college teams in the sport. The Cougars have claimed five national championships since 2009.
Players on the Warriors’ 2018 roster embraced the chance to put their stamp on a pro team that could one day do similar things. They take the opportunity to build a winning culture and traditions at Utah very seriously.
“I consider it a huge honor and a huge privilege to be capped as the first Warrior going forward,” team captain Paul Lasike, a former BYU running back, said. “When this league builds, and more teams come along and a future generation of Warriors come through, it will be something that I’ll be able to hold onto. I consider it a real privilege. It’s real fun and exciting.”
The past successes of these other teams opened doors for the local community to embrace a new professional team. It has also given the Warriors a natural talent pipeline to fill out the team’s roster.

Many BYU and University of Utah alumni earned spots on the Warriors’ roster during the inaugural MLR season. This sense of familiarity infused Utah with natural chemistry before the season even started because most of the team had already played together and it helped them become familiar with one another’s individual playing styles.
“Coming together is just an easy mesh,” Warriors player and BYU alum Jared Whippy said. “We have a lot of fun together. We like hanging around each other. Just being here locally just gives us more sense of pride because we’ve been here so many years. We want to give big rugby to Utah and show what Utah has.”
One thing working in Utah’s favor for a viable future beyond this season is the media exposure it is receiving compared to other teams in smaller pro leagues. Rugby fans across the country got to see the Warriors and the other six MLR teams in action early and often.
Before playing a single match, MLR secured national and regional broadcast deals with CBS Sports Network, ESPN and AT&T Sports. CBS Sports Network broadcast 13 games—including all three postseason matches—during the league’s debut season. ESPN broadcast 18 additional regular season games across various platforms. AT&T Sports carried 17 games not broadcast by CBS Sports or ESPN.
Utah’s home and road regular season matches were broadcast in one form or another as a result of the three deals.
“The game of rugby is a great game, but it’s a sport that is not as wellknown as we would like it and not as well understood as we would like it,” MLR CEO Dean Howes said. “The best vehicle to overcome those two things is to have all of our games broadcast and have good broadcast partners. We’re thrilled. It makes all the difference in the world.”
The league is structured under a single entity ownership model like Major League Soccer. Howe says MLR operates under that model to help reduce costs and allow parity, to give it a solid foundation to build on, so it can have staying power beyond a season or two.
MLR is already making plans for a controlled push into other markets, which bodes well for teams like Utah in having a secure future. The league is set to add two more teams with New York and Dallas coming aboard in 2019. Potential expansion teams in Toronto, Boston, Chicago and Vancouver are also under consideration for the future beyond 2019 with the league hoping to have as many as 16 to 20 teams within 10 years.