Major League Rugby, the US men’s professional rugby union competition, will operate with 12 teams next season, down from 13 with the withdrawal of Los Angeles and Austin but with the addition of an expansion team, possibly based in Chicago.
Announcing the news on Tuesday, the MLR commissioner, George Killebrew, said: “While we understand that this news is disappointing for the fans, players, and stakeholders of these two teams, this decision was made after much deliberation and counsel, and with the best interests of the league in mind.
“Our league is invested in long-term success. It is vital for us to give our teams and their loyal fanbases the best chance of succeeding both on and off the field in 2023.”
MLR began with seven teams in 2018. Covid cut short season three, in 2020, but the league survived the pandemic and extensive political ructions. In 2021, LA won the title in their first season.
LA and Austin were both named for drinks named after Adam Gilchrist, an Australian fitness industry entrepreneur: the Giltinis in LA and the Gilgronis in Austin.
Late in the 2022 season, both Gilchrist-owned teams were dramatically disqualified. The league said LA and Austin were out over “violations of league rules” and unspecified misconduct, which sources said were related to breaches of salary cap regulations. Gilchrist filed a lawsuit against MLR.
On Tuesday, the Giltinis organisation did not respond to a request for comment.
The league said: “The league will offer all Austin and Los Angeles players the opportunity to continue playing in MLR by holding a dispersal draft in the coming weeks. Teams will announce player moves as they are confirmed.”
MLR said the new 12th team would be “an expansion team in a new market”, with “a detailed announcement surrounding the expansion team expected in the coming weeks”. Sources in the game have indicated that Chicago, like St Louis long known to be a possible MLR city, is set to be the named as the new city in a league split into two six-team conferences.
Rugby New York won the 2022 title, defeating Seattle Seawolves (champions in 2018 and 2019) in the championship game in June.
On Tuesday, Kimball Kjar, a former US Eagles scrum-half now chief executive of the Utah Warriors, wrote on Twitter: “MLR absolutely did the right thing earlier this season and in working with the sale process of LA and Austin. Despite the hard work of many in the MLR front office, board and Gilchrist[,] a sale couldn’t transact on time. Focus has been on and will be on the players.
“There remain many interested in both teams [and] markets and I wouldn’t be surprised to have MLR back in those cities in the future. Regardless, safeguarding the league, its integrity and the players will be key with future expansion. Much to be excited about despite this news.”
Chris Dunlavey, a co-owner of Old Glory DC, wrote: “Major League Rugby is stronger today than it was yesterday and has more promise for the future than ever. The road to success always leads past tough hits. That’s rugby.”
World Rugby, the global governing body, has an increased interest in establishing the game in the US. In May, it announced that the men’s World Cup will be staged in the US in 2031 and the women’s event two years later.
The US women’s Eagles have qualified for the quarter-finals of the current World Cup in New Zealand, where they face Canada this weekend. But the American men have not yet reached the 2023 World Cup in France. They have one last chance, via a repechage tournament in Dubai in November which will also include Kenya, Hong Kong and Portugal.
On Tuesday, MLR said it was “committed to continuing to grow the sport of rugby in Austin, Los Angeles, and the surrounding areas”.
It added: “These markets and their fans demonstrated their support for the game and proved to be cities in which the league intends to have a long-term presence.
“With that in mind, MLR, with USA Youth and High School, will work with Rugby Texas and SoCal Youth Rugby on the imminent relaunch of Rookie Rugby as well as the expansion of rugby in community colleges.”