Major League Rugby has confirmed that that the Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis will not be competing in the league in 2023. They are the first teams to leave the league since the Colorado Raptors departed in 2020, and they will be only teams to have left involuntarily. This follows on the footsteps of both teams being suspended from the playoffs last year but is not directly related that debacle. In the same press release, the league teased that a new expansion side will be added, putting the competition at 12 teams for the upcoming season.
The Gilchrist Saga
Both Austin and LA are owned by Adam Gilchrist, who built his wealth on the explosively successful F45 gym franchise. Originally intending to own just one team in LA, he bought the struggling Austin franchise in order to hold it over while another buyer could be found. Many fans were happy to see him rehabilitate Austin, a team that had been something of a joke on the field and had been an absolute mess off it. There was also a general appreciation for his willingness to spend money on rugby in the Americas and raise the stature of the league with high quality venues and players. However, there was also a lot of discomfort due to the ridiculous cocktail-themed names of the teams and the apparent flouting of salary cap rules.
Gilchrist's teams were wildly successful on the pitch, with LA winning the championship in their inaugural season in 2021 and both teams in playoff position in 2022. However, while conducting due diligence during the sale of Austin, the league uncovered significant salary cap violations and suspended the team from the playoffs. While we don't have the details of what happened next, it's believed that Gilchrist threatened to pull LA out of the playoffs in protest, and the league responded by suspending them as well. Gilchrist then sued, hoping for an injunction to prevent his teams missing the playoffs, but did not receive one. The playoffs went ahead without him, while the lawsuit remains ongoing.
Meanwhile, F45 was facing a disastrous IPO that saw shares drop over 60%, and Gilchrist, having much of his wealth still tied up in F45 shares, began to run short on cash. Stories emerged of unpaid wages, putting the future of the teams in doubt. For months, rumors swirled online about the fates of the teams, while the league worked to find new owners in time for the 2023 season. Eventually, they set a deadline of October 20th for the sale of the teams. Despite interest from potential owners in both teams, neither was able to finalize a deal.
What lies ahead for staff, players, and teams
While these suspensions are unfortunate, they don't mark the end of the story. Should the teams find new owners, they will be able to rejoin the league in the future. In that sense, it isn't much different to Dallas pulling out of the 2021 season, then rejoining in 2022. In their announcement, the MLR stated that they will be continuing youth rugby efforts in both cities, which should help maintain some of the connection that the league has had to those areas.
For the players, however, this is a more significant disruption. Several of the biggest names, such as Matt Giteau and Adam Ashe, have retired or left for other leagues. For the remaining players, the league has stated that it will hold a dispersal draft, much like it did with the Colorado Raptors when they left the league and for the Dallas Jackals when they opted out of the 2021 season. Many of the players will likely end up on the roster of the new expansion side, with the other teams likely taking on a few players each. Unfortunately, with two teams completely disappearing and only one joining, many players will likely miss out.
As for the staff, some could find a place on other teams around the league, including on the new expansion team. Some have already left, with LA coach Stephen Hoiles has already returned to his native Australia to coach Randwick. However, it's unclear whether they will ever be able to recover the money owed to them by Gilchrist. They are probably the group most deeply affected by this news, and hopefully the community and the league can take measures to ensure they are taken care of.
A new challenger emerges
There is some positive news to report today. MLR has confirmed that a new team will be joining the league, after much offseason speculation. They have stated that they will announce the details at a later date, but sources confirm that the team will be based in Chicago. This will fill a significant gap in the MLR's coverage, finally placing team in the rugby-rich Midwest. The name of this new team is apparently still undecided, but so long as they aren't cocktail-centric I don't think I'll have to write another scathing op-ed.
The addition of Chicago will level out the conference structure, with 12 teams divided into two 6-team conferences. This will allow for a convenient 16-match schedule, with home and away games against in-conference rivals and one match against each of the other teams. The only lingering question will be whether Chicago or NOLA joins the West conference. While NOLA makes more geographic sense due to its proximity to Texas, Chicago has significantly convenient air travel.
At the end of the day, no one likes to see teams leave, and it's especially painful for Austin, a founding member of the league that had just started to find success. However, these sorts of growing pains are inevitable, and the possibility of a new fanbase in a new part of the country is exciting.