There are three sports in the second-wave of Canadian sports, and two of them involve the term “rugby”. The 13-man game of rugby league, and the long-established 15-man game. Each has a foothold, but the future of Canadian professional rugby union looks to have more optimism within the provinces and territories.
Professionalization in these sports may have started with rugby league in Canada, but the more popular and well-known code has traditionally been known as “union”.
Professional rugby union is the future of the sports market in Canada. There is already one pro-rugby union team in Toronto [part of Major League Rugby] and now there are two other cities in Canada interested in having a franchise within expanded MLR competition.
Canadian professional Rugby Union
The professional era of rugby union in Canada officially started this year when the Toronto Arrows played their first season in MLR, a new upstart US-based professional sports league that started in 2018.
The Arrows had a successful regular season campaign finishing in third place in the MLR standings before bowing out against the Seattle Seawolves, who ended up winning the 2019 MLR Final against the San Diego Legions.
Toronto Arrows Fan Support
The Arrows brought a lot of fan support into Major League Rugby with an average attendance of over 2,000. In comparison, their expansion cousins, Rugby United New York, drew 1,773 people per game. The successful establishment of the Arrows has helped Halifax develop support for a pro rugby union team while Vancouver is having trouble establishing a team in MLR.
Our inaugural season in @usmlr was one to remember, and wouldn't have been possible without the incredible support we received from our fans and partners.
— Toronto Arrows Rugby Club (@TorontoArrows) June 17, 2019
Which other Canadian cities could support MLR franchises?
Right now, there are only two cities that could have MLR franchises. These cities are Halifax and Vancouver.
The one that is rumoured the most and thought by some people could have come along with the Toronto Arrows this year was a potential Vancouver team. Vancouver seemed very likely to happen early last year as there were two groups vying to get a pro rugby union and bring it to Vancouver.
One was an effort by both Harrison and Balfour. Harrison is an investor and Balfour currently owns the Seattle Seawolves in MLR. However, not much is known about how much progress this ownership group has made to bring a pro rugby union team to Vancouver.
The second group was a BC Rugby Union group looking to bring a pro rugby union team to Vancouver. However, talks with MLR have stalled and is likely not a strong candidate for a potential Vancouver franchise.
Halifax hosted the then Ontario Arrows and the New England Free Jacks on October 2018, who at that time were both aspiring to get into MLR. The Ontario Arrows changed their name to the Toronto Arrows and are now already in MLR, while the New England Free Jacks will be in MLR in 2020. Many people speculated that Halifax may be interested in an MLR franchise, but it was never really discussed as a serious option until a few months ago.
Following the success of the upstart HFX Wanderers FC in the similarly fledgling Canadian Premier League, Atlantic Sports and Entertainment are now entertaining a professional rugby union team into Wanderers Grounds.
They are in preliminary discussions at the moment, and the owner of Atlantic Sports and Entertainment hopes to be part of a Halifax MLR team within the next couple of years if everything falls into place.
The current status of Canadian professional Rugby Union
Pro rugby union is in its infancy in Canada. With cities like Halifax and Vancouver as potential landing spots, the future is at least trending upward. One must not discount other major markets like Montreal and Calgary which have populations that might be big enough to also support a franchise.
Canada as a country has fallen on hard times recently in sporting terms. Apart from the always-popular NHL and the recently triumphant Toronto Raptors, competitions like the Canadian Football League (CFL) and Canadian Premier League have a small foothold. The former, in fact, are reporting that their attendance averages are down versus last year’s numbers.
Rugby enthusiasts will hope that there are more professional rugby union opportunities for Canadian teams to boost the game’s status. The greater the number of opportunities for rugby to flourish in the country will only prove to help in the long-term development of the national team’s players.
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