'I could see young Irish guys coming here after missing out on the provinces' academies'

Adrian Balfour, general manager of the Seattle Seawolves, told us about their Major League Rugby-winning success.

A RECENT VISIT to EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands proved to be an experience in feeling pride at being Irish.

The excellent museum tells many tales of Irish people who have moved abroad, whether forced or by choice, and gone on to make great successes of themselves.

The circumstances of some Irish emigration is harrowing but it is fascinating to see how many from these shores have helped to influence and shape the US in particular.

Some Irish have struggled in the US, of course, but Irish success stories in America remain plentiful today, even in the burgeoning field of rugby – one of the fastest growing sports in the States.

Seattle The Seawolves won this year's Major League Rugby. Source: Seattle Seawolves/Facebook

The inaugural season of Major League Rugby [MLR], a professional competition, finished three weeks ago when the Seattle Seawolves beat the Glendale Raptors in the final in San Diego.

It was a proud day for Irishman Adrian Balfour, a native of Letterbreen, ”a wee farming community” in Fermanagh, close to the Cavan border.

Balfour is general manager and co-founder of the Seattle team and heads up a group of 20 investors who are excited about the future of the Seawolves and rugby in the US.

It was a hugely positive first season for MLR, with encouraging attendances, television coverage by CBS, AT&T and ESPN, as well as a promising level of quality in the games. Already, there are new clubs confirmed to expand MLR from seven teams next year.

Seattle’s success – they’ve been dubbed “Seattle’s hottest new startup” – is a prime example of the growth in interest in rugby in the States, as well as the sustainability of the new MLR model.

Balfour was confident that interest in the Seawolves would grow but even he was blown away by the sell-out crowd of 3,500 at their first home game.

“I was thinking it was going to be myself, my wife and my kids, no one else – you really have that fear,” explains Balfour, who also sits on the board of directors for MLR.

“My wife is American so she didn’t really get rugby before and she said it was the dumbest idea I’d ever had! That gives you a sense of how many people thought it was going to fail.”

The Seawolves added seats into Starfire Sports Complex – formerly home to Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders – during the season, ending with an average attendance of over 3,700 and they have plans to expand further next year. Two weeks into season ticket sales for 2019, they are already close to sold-out.

Convincing the sports-mad USA to fully embrace rugby will be a big challenge for MLR in the years to come but Balfour is convinced the selling points are alluring.

“Rugby has got the speed of soccer, the athleticism of basketball and the physicality of football,” says Balfour, who still has his Fermanagh accent.

“We’re selling something that’s done in two hours whereas football takes five or six hours and often you’re sitting really far away from the action, it’s not personalised. We’re making sure our team gets into the crowd after the games, so the fans feel very close to it.

Source: USMLR/YouTube

“It becomes emotional for people and I would say that three-quarters of the people in the stand during our games had never before seen a rugby game in their life.

“But it would get the hair on the back of your neck standing up – I’ve never experienced the passion our fans have.”

While the Seawolves didn’t have any Irish players during their first season, Balfour is keen to create links with his native land, certain as he is that Irishmen could benefit from exposure in MLR.

“We’ve reached out to Leinster and Ulster, met those guys and we’re keen to establish a partnership with the provinces back home,” he says.

“We’ve got ongoing conversations with them and it would be great if we could bring them to reality. Even in business terms, it helps to have exposure overseas.

“I could see young Irish guys coming over, maybe just out of school after missing out on the provinces’ academies, who want to increase their horizons a bit. They could play in the US at a high level.

“They could develop their skills and maybe eventually get picked up by one of the provinces a few years down the line.”

The first season of MLR saw a limit of five foreign players per team but that will rise to seven in 2019, much to Balfour’s approval.

While he recognises the need to produce players for the US national team, he’s also keen to “ensure the rugby is high enough quality and entertaining” as MLR establishes itself.

The apparent financial sustainability of MLR is one of the major plus points of the competition, particularly after others have attempted to launch professional rugby in the States and failed, as with PRO Rugby – gone after a single season in 2016.

MLR is organised in a single-entity model similar to that of Major League Soccer, with each club having part ownership of the league and making capital commitments of around $570,000 a year.

“It means there are lots of people with equity in the league and also lots of people with equity in each of the teams,” says Balfour.

Seismologist John Vidale Seattle. Source: DPA/PA Images

“We have around 20 investors in Seattle. Now, different teams have different models for investment, but if we get to 10 teams in the league, that could mean over 100 people invested in rugby in the US. That’s a broad base and it means it’s sustainable going forward, which is what I’m most proud of.”

MLR’s commissioner is Dean Howes, ex-CEO of Real Salt Lake in MLS, and his experience helped the league to secure full national TV coverage before its maiden season.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a professional sports league in the US that’s launched with a nationwide television deal before, that hasn’t happened over here,” says Balfour.

Like many of his generation, Balfour left Ireland in the ’80s in search of a job, working in France and then for Ford in London before moving to the US and starting his own project managing company, Pcubed, which he sold in 2013 after establishing 27 offices around the world.

He has used the wealth generated by that sale to establish several more companies in Seattle in the years since, but rugby also made sense as a financial focus, given his love of the sport.

Balfour played rugby at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen as a youngster and continued to be involved in the game wherever his working life took him, leading him to Northwest Old Boys RFC [NOBs] when he settled in Seattle.

As his involvement in the local rugby scene grew, Balfour became an integral part of a movement within the wider US rugby community, based on a realisation that there was a gap for a nationwide professional competition.

“There was a glaring need to do a professional US-wide league because the US only had a bunch of regional competitions. The size of the country is huge and amateur clubs can only travel so much before it becomes unaffordable. It’s $10,000 or $20,000 to do a weekend away somewhere.

“We called people that we knew were influential in each of these rugby regions and said, ‘We can get a US-wide competition together.’ It had to be professional, with professional investors and real business people involved, all of that, not just rugby people.

“Getting that movement going was quite a bit of work but then it started to roll and I wouldn’t say it’s all been sweetness and roses but it certainly has a good momentum about it.”

Along with his co-founder, Shane Skinner, Balfour found investors in Seattle and the surrounding region – many of whom had no background in rugby.

“If we had tried to do it just as a rugby community, it wouldn’t have worked,” says Balfour.

Source: USMLR/YouTube

Interestingly, New Zealand’s highly-successful Canterbury Rugby Union and Crusaders have a minority stake in the Seawolves.

“They’re helping with our search for a coach for next season, they’ve helped with our sponsorship programme, and they’ve been a financial investor,” explains Balfour.

“There’s a recognition that rugby is going to grow in the US. We’re on the west coast, so if you’re a Kiwi, you can look up and the west coast is closer. There are people in Canterbury who actually have their kids in university in Seattle too.”

Of course, the strong rugby community in Seattle has been vital to the Seawolves’ success, even if their investors are not solely based in that family.

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Seattle Saracens are a powerhouse of amateur rugby in the British Columbia region, and their men’s and women’s teams, as well as gay rugby team Seattle Quake, wheelchair rugby club Seattle Slam, kids’ rugby side Eastside Lions and the aforementioned NOBs, have been big supporters.

Chris Prentice, a stalwart of Seattle rugby and owner of the influential Atavus Rugby, who provide coaching camps for players and coaches around the US, has been an important figure behind the scenes.

With Saracens president Kevin Flynn also serving as the Seawolves’ team manager, the link between the clubs is strong and Saracens are now ”essentially acting as our academy squad,” says Balfour.

“When Kevin played with London Irish, he went through the transition of amateur to professional rugby. He’s been pivotal in helping to manage players and keeping people grounded.

“When we started conversations about this club, it was around pulling together a northwest club, not just a Seattle club. We’ve got a large number of Canadians in the squad and Phil Mack was the coach, as well as the scrum-half, last season.”

The Seawolves have built a strong relationship with the GAA around Seattle and Balfour says they are looking at potentially building a stadium in “three to five years that would be a multi-purpose facility that could do Gaelic, Aussie Rules and rugby.”

MLR’s first season is already feeding into improved performances from the national team, with the Eagles having enjoyed a superb June series with wins over Russia and Canada, as well as a stunning shock victory against Scotland.

US head coach Gary Gold has highlighted the fact that MLR meant several of his players were better prepared for Test rugby, a source of pride for Balfour and many others.

“It used to be that the national team would include around 70% amateur players and they had mixed results,” says Balfour. “Now, there isn’t a single person on that team that isn’t playing professional rugby as their career.

RUGBY 2018: USA Men's Rugby Team vs Scotland Men's Rugby Team The US beat Scotland in June. Source: Maria Lysaker

“We can now provide the training facilities, coaches, support staff, and that environment allows them to be professional. It’s cool to see those guys go on and represent the US or Canada. It feels really good.”

The future looks rosy for MLR, with the heavily Irish-influenced Rugby United New York confirmed to join the league next year, as are the California-based LA Coast Rugby – one of the club’s founders is Omagh man Patrick McCullagh.

Teams in Dallas, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have also been deep in discussions to join the league, meaning these are exciting times.

“We want to take a look at where the centres of rugby are, not just in the US but Canada as well,” says Balfour.

“You want to get those centres of rugby involved and be able to pull the whole continent together as a single grouping. If no one is left out, you’re stronger.

“You’ve got James Kennedy and New York coming in, Boston, DC, LA, Toronto, eventually Vancouver, Dallas, Chicago – once you start getting those markets involved, it will start becoming stronger and stronger and stronger.

“In the next five years, we want to get the league from seven teams to maybe 12 teams, decent expansion into the 2019 season and into 2020, so from there, it’s likely there will be a pause because you don’t want to overcook it.

“You want to make sure the quality is there. If you’ve got 10 teams, you’re going to have 350 or 400 players at a professional level. With the best will in the world, are there 400 players of that level in America and Canada?”

Perhaps not quite yet but with MLR looking like it’s here to stay, that idea may not be too far from reality.

A new American Dream built around rugby and the Irish involvement is no surprise.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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