Inaugural MLR Draft – Everything You Need to Know

In a couple days, Major League Rugby will hold its first ever draft. 400 college rugby players from across the country have thrown their hat in the ring; on Saturday, 24 of them will be selected to join MLR teams. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s start with the details.

Details

  • Date: June 13, 2020
  • Time: 7:00 p.m. EST
  • Where to watch: Facebook Live
  • Players declared: Roughly 400
  • Number of rounds: 2
  • Total draft spots: 24

Who is eligible for the draft?

If you played collegiate rugby in the US last year (2019-2020 school year) and you were a junior or senior that year, you are eligible for the draft. Collegiate athletes who played a sport other than rugby, as well as anyone who went to a college outside of the US, cannot be drafted (though they can still be signed by a team outside of the draft process).

If a player declares but wasn’t drafted, they are free to do as they wish, so they can sign with any team that will take them or go back to college if they have eligibility remaining. However, if a player is drafted, then they are locked in to that team until the next draft. If they can’t come to an agreement with that team, then they can’t be signed by any other team until after the next draft. These players can still go back to college or play for a senior club, but they can’t play for an MLR team.

Interestingly, if you are eligible for the draft but you don’t declare, then you can’t be signed by any MLR team until after the next draft. This is presumably to prevent players from skipping out on the draft, as anyone who doesn’t will have to wait a year after leaving college before joining the MLR.

What is the draft order?

The order is the reverse of the regular season standings, with the expansion teams in Dallas and LA coming first. Unlike some other drafts, this one does not snake.

Trades are allowed and have already started happening. The Sabercats traded out of the draft entirely, giving up their spots to Utah in exchange for Rob Povey. LA also swapped their first round pick with NOLA for a second round pick, but it’s unclear what else they got from the deal. Just recently, RUNY traded all of their picks and some salary cap space to Dallas for a foreign player spot. Here is the current order of picks after these trades:

Round 1

  1. Dallas Jackals
  2. NOLA Gold (via LA)
  3. Utah Warriors (via Houston)
  4. Austin Gilgronis
  5. Seattle Seawolves
  6. NE Free Jacks
  7. Utah Warriors
  8. Rugby Atlanta
  9. Dallas Jackals (via RUNY)
  10. NOLA Gold
  11. Old Glory DC
  12. San Diego Legion

Round 2

  1. Dallas Jackals
  2. LA Lights
  3. Utah Warriors (via Houston)
  4. Austin Gilgronis
  5. Seattle Seawolves
  6. NE Free Jacks
  7. Utah Warriors
  8. Rugby Atlanta
  9. Dallas Jackals (via RUNY)
  10. LA Lights (via NOLA)
  11. Old Glory DC
  12. San Diego Legion

Why isn’t Toronto in the lineup?

The Arrows won’t be participating in the draft, for reasons that haven’t been explicitly stated but are easy to guess. The most likely reason is simply one of logistics, as the league has had well documented struggles getting visas for foreign players. Reliably securing visas for experienced players is hard; doing so for rookies out of college would be impossible.

In exchange for leaving Toronto out, it seems that they get essentially unchallenged dibs to all Canadian college players. For now, that’s probably a fine arrangement.

Who are the top draft prospects? Who will go at number 1?

It’s difficult to forecast the draft with any certainty, since the college game isn’t consistently covered and there are so many unknown variables in the draft itself. That said, the MLR has been releasing a selection of highlight videos for some of the top prospects. Here’s all of them so far:

Why are there only two rounds?

Originally, there were supposed to be four rounds, but the MLR narrowed it to two after players started declaring for the draft. Some have speculated that this signified that there wasn’t enough talent in the class to support that many rounds, but it’s also likely that the league just didn’t want to overstretch on their first time round.

Will the draft be televised?

You can watch it live at Major League Rugby’s Facebook page. There is also a rumor that it will be available through FTF, but haven’t been able to find it written down anywhere explicitly, so I’m treating it as unconfirmed.

Is it even a good idea to hold a draft? Is it too soon?

There’s some debate about this in the MLR community. Some people are making the argument that this whole thing is jumping the gun a bit, that the league needs to wait until it is a little more established before it tries to mess around ideas like a draft. Much like the experiment with hosting games in Vegas this past season, it may be too early in the MLR’s life to have something like this taken seriously.

However, there are some advantages to holding a draft. Perhaps most importantly, it clarifies a pathway for players in college who want to play in the MLR. Previously, college players had to rely on an informal network of relationships to get noticed and picked up by an MLR team. Now, they can simply declare for the draft and have their name in front of all of the teams. Relationships will still be important, but the mechanism for getting recruited is now clearer.

This also helps the teams involved, as none of them are in a position financially to support a full-time recruiting staff. Instead of spending time digging into the opaque corners of college rugby and guessing who is interested in playing professionally, teams now have a list that they can work through and evaluate.

From the fan perspective, this may indeed be too early. Few people know anything about the college players involved and the whole thing feels a little undercooked. But the league loses nothing by starting now. The draft serves important and immediate internal needs for players and teams, and if it gains more significance for fans later on, all the better.

Is the draft bad for players?

This is a concern that we should always take seriously. It has been argued by many people that we are treating these up-and-coming rugby players unfairly by locking them into a particular team. After all, players will likely have to move to a new city, potentially a long way from their current homes. And, unlike in wealthier leagues, they will be doing so for a relatively low-paying, part-time job. What’s more, they may not even up getting to play, or they might be forced to play for a team with a silly name.

Others have countered that lots of players move around the country for the chance to play top-level senior club rugby as is, and they do so for no money at all. Still those players have the freedom to choose where they move to.

For now, I don’t think that this is a serious problem. First of all, it’s unlikely that a team is going to draft a player who they aren’t certain they’ll be able to sign. Secondly, the draft being only two rounds means that there aren’t that many players involved, and the ones who are will be almost guaranteed some time to play. As such, while this might not be perfect for the players involved, it doesn’t seem like it will be too bad either.

Is the draft even legal?

There is an argument that the draft format, and the anti-competitive rules it places on players who are selected or refuse to participate, could be a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust act. In essence, the league could be acting like an illegal monopoly by creating such restrictions on where players can play. A key point of the argument is that other leagues with drafts like the NFL have players unions that have signed away their competitive rights in this regard while MLR players have not.

I’m not a lawyer, but it’s pretty clear that the legal case here isn’t so cut and dry. There are number of things that make direct comparisons to other leagues difficult, such as player contracts being centrally held and the league’s single-entity structure. It is possible that the draft is illegal, but it is far from a settled issue.

For now, it will only matter if someone tries to sue over it, which seems unlikely. In the future, though, there could be problems if the format doesn’t change. At very least, a players’ union should be considered.

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