Seattle’s team will begin its inaugural Major League Rugby season April 22 with a game against San Diego at Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila.
Inside sports business
Two new Seattle-area teams jumped into the city’s sports fray last week, but only one was immediately visible on a national scale.
The likely Seattle expansion team in the NHL trotted out would-be owners that include billionaire investment banker David Bonderman and Hollywood mogul Jerry Bruckheimer alongside Oak View Group arena honcho Tim Leiweke. They snagged 33,000 season-ticket deposits of $500 and $1,000 within 31 hours for a team that would play at a centrally located arena renovated for $600 million and that wouldn’t even be officially made a franchise until at least June.
On the other end of that spectrum, you have the Seattle Seawolves beginning their inaugural Major League Rugby season April 22 at the Starfire Sports Stadium in Tukwila. Their opening news conference at the Washington Athletic Club drew a smattering of local media types and featured a handful of athletes and business folk few sports fans in this city have heard of.
To say it’s getting crowded in the city’s sports landscape is an understatement, yet those behind the Seawolves are confident they can carve their own niche. But to do so will require some creative thinking and a unique approach.
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“The folks that are invested, they’re doing it because they love the sport,” said Shane Skinner, owner of the Record360 technology company, one of about two dozen investors in the Seawolves. “And to support the sport more so than the investment vehicle. I don’t know whether it’s unique or not, but it feels different from other investments I’ve made.”
Rugby is indeed a growing sport that for years has immersed itself in community activism and grass-roots involvement beyond the playing field. And certainly, the Seawolves are hoping — even banking on — that tight-knit community spirit helping it succeed here.
And they’ll need it.
Seattle still isn’t viewed nationally as a major sports town, but that’s about to change. Once the NHL arrives as expected — and if the NBA, as expected, follows soon after — we would be the only city outside Los Angeles to boast all four major pro sports, a Major League Soccer team, a WNBA franchise and a Power-5 football program in the city limits. Beyond the Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, NHL team, future SuperSonics, Huskies football and Storm, you’d also have the National Women’s Soccer League’s Seattle Reign and junior-hockey franchises in Kent and Everett competing for sports dollars locally.
So, it’s safe to say the Seawolves will be starting a lot smaller than some of the beefy players they had speaking at the microphone last week. It helps that the league is structured to limit costs and keep ticket prices affordable.
They’ll play at the 4,000-seat Starfire complex, where Skinner says half the seats have already been sold. His goal is a sold-out first season of four home games in the seven-team league, which includes franchises in Austin, Houston, Glendale (Colorado), New Orleans, San Diego and Salt Lake City. An eighth franchise, in New York, is on board for next year.
Season tickets run from $99 to $129. Single-game tickets are between $19 and $39, run as low as $9 for children 12 and under and are free for kids 2 and under sitting on laps. There’s even a family section to encourage entire families to come out.
Skinner declined to say what the players are paid, but pro rugby in the United States typically hasn’t been a financial bonanza. Teams will use a 15-player, Rugby Union format of top U.S. talent and up to five international signings.
The league has set salary caps for each team, though Skinner declined to say what they are. A league spokesman also did not return a phone call seeking comment about that.
Suffice to say, there won’t be any multimillion-dollar contracts breaking the league’s bank any time soon. MLR’s financial structure is such that its teams each own a piece of the league and therefore benefit from helping one another. You won’t see teams trying to take an opponent’s best player out of the game.
“We get on calls every few weeks and discuss what’s working, what’s not working in each market,” Skinner said. “We’ve also had individual calls with different owners where they might have different strengths, or opportunities they need to get help on.
“I might have expertise in sales or marketing. They might have expertise in legal, or with different products. You want to be part of the other team’s success, to help everybody.”
The Seawolves also have trimmed costs by farming out public-relations duties to Force 10 Sports Management — owners of the Storm. Force 10 also recently took over some of the Reign’s business operations, furthering a trend of smaller teams and leagues joining forces to compete in a market of behemoths.
One bigger thing MLR has right away is a multiyear, national-television deal with CBS Sports Network that should help get it off the ground. It’s the first national-TV partnership involving American pro rugby.
The network has agreed to televise a 13-game package, with 10 weeks of regular-season and two weeks of postseason coverage. It also will feature a game of the week.
But for the most part, this will be a startup league trying to win fans over one at a time.
“We think we have what it takes to grow this thing,” Skinner said. “You watch and see. People are going to love it.”