NEW YORK, NY – This year’s March Madness will be similar to previous years – but also quite different. The Tournament will start a day later than usual – with the crazy non-stop first-round happening on a Friday and Saturday instead of a Thursday and Friday. The tourney will also take place in a single city – with Indianapolis, Indiana, playing host for every game.
The idea is to keep players in one location, limiting travel and allowing the Tournament to keep exposure down. The approach they take should help player safety, enable the Tournament to run smoothly, and mean we can make March Madness bets this year – which we are all excited to do after last year’s Tournament was cancelled.
Some of the ideas the NCAA are doing for the event could work for upcoming rugby events, including the 2021 Major League Rugby season. But the sports are not an apples-to-apples comparison – meaning we can take some ideas but must leave others behind. The only thing we know is when is something is flat out cancelled – it sucks for everyone.
But with both sports starting in March, there is still some time for Major League Rugby to adopt a few strategies from March Madness and other sports to ensure their season is a success.
Ideas that Could Work for Major League Rugby
Limiting events to a single locale has worked for previous sports. The NBA and NHL both ran bubbles to complete their seasons and were able to crown a victor. The NCAA is using this model for their upcoming Tournament, and it could work better for the #MLR2021 season.
Currently, the 2021 MLR season is planning on playing games at home stadiums (excluding Toronto, who are playing each game at different stadiums in the US as travel between the United States and Canada is restricted).
But with the travel every week all over the United States, it could be smarter to start the season in a single location before opening for more movement. How March Madness is doing their Tournament – which is not a full season of games but a few weeks worth of games is an idea to start. It is also similar to what Major League Soccer did upon its return last summer with their Welcome Back Tournament (held in a bubble in Florida) to start the year before moving back to a normal-ish regular season and playoffs.
The Challenge for Rugby vs. Basketball
The Major League Rugby season is much more like a National Football League season than anything else. In March Madness, teams that win earlier in the tournament play two days later. In rugby and football, you play one game per week – maybe two in the NFL if you play a Sunday and a Thursday. Both leagues also have bye weeks – which are a boon if you need to reschedule matches.
The sport’s physicality makes it challenging to condense the season by playing as many games as possible in a smaller window. The league also does not want to cancel games as it needs the revenue to continue.
The league has already delayed the start of the season – as it usually kicks off in January – meaning another delay is unlikely unless warranted.
One Mistake Made by the Major League Rugby
The league should have created a schedule – for at least the early part of the season – that is regionally based. The NHL made sweeping changes to their 2021 season by creating divisions that were geographically close to each other (and one with all the Canadian teams) to limit travel. College Football did a similar thing, with many Conferences only playing games against themselves.
The league could have easily done this – by having the northeast teams playing each other, the southern teams playing each other, and the west coast teams playing each for the first few weeks of the season. Instead, you have New York flying to Las Vegas in Week 1 – a bit of a head-scratcher.
We will have to see how things go – but we think the league could imply a few more strategies before the season starts to make it run better.