Danny Tusitala, left, and Will Vakalahi
Danny Tusitala, left, and Will Vakalahi Credit: Paris Malone/Old Glory DC

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Two years ago, an ownership group of sports executives set out to bring professional rugby to D.C., and in 2019, Old Glory DC became the local Major League Rugby franchise. This year, the team started 4-1 and sold out its four home games—two in the preseason and two during the regular season—at Cardinal Stadium, a 3,500 capacity multipurpose stadium at the Catholic University of America, building momentum for the fledgling franchise playing in its first non-exhibition matches.

Then the coronavirus pandemic happened.

Old Glory suspended the season before canceling it outright. Professional sports leagues across the country have struggled in the wake of the virus. The reboot of the XFL came to an abrupt end in April. The NBA and NHL are debating what to do with the rest of their season, and the MLB has yet to begin the 2020 season.

But Old Glory DC intends to survive.

“We’re disappointed in the way it turned out,” says Old Glory head coach Andrew Douglas. “But you consider what’s happening around the world, we want to be safe. Players who live outside of the D.C. area and have family, we want to make sure they’re taken care of and deal with logistical issues like housing for players.”

Old Glory played five regular season matches and two in the preseason before the sports world came crashing down. Losing the opportunity to play an inaugural season is frustrating, especially with the uncertainty with next year.

“The word heartbreaking is not inappropriate,” says team chairman and part-owner Chris Dunlavey, who had played for the Washington Irish Rugby Football Club previously. “Things were going so well. We were enjoying the payoff of our hard work so much it was heartbreaking having it taken away, but that was tempered by it being the right thing to do … We are so committed to coming back strong next year, it lightens the load.”

A stoppage raises concerns for future gate revenue for every league, but Old Glory has taken that into account, along with the rest of the start-up league, and maintains it has a solid financial status.

MLR was founded in 2018 and has quickly risen to 12 teams, which went down to 11 in early May when the Colorado Raptors withdrew from the league.

Despite that, Old Glory DC executives are confident about its future.

“Unlike some other sports like the XFL which just packed it in, shortening the season actually ended up leaving the league in pretty good shape financially,” Dunlavey says. “We’re planning on returning in 2021 when public health conditions improve, and we’re planning already.”

Dunlavey’s argument is the league was going to operate at a loss early on anyway, especially a first-year team, so investing money into game-day operations would have cost the league and team more.

It’s not a blessing in disguise, but it’s not going to kill the league, either.

“Shortening it actually saved money,” he says. “It left the league itself in a better financial position than it would have been if we played out the full season.”

Players and staff are taking that promise to heart and operating as if they’ll be in the picture for years to come.

“The league’s in a pretty good space,” Douglas says. “The league’s in a good spot and that’s because things were done early financially. We’re just excited for the competition to start up.”

Money saved or not, spending years to develop a professional team as a part of a young league and losing that first season will be a setback in building a fanbase and team identity. The single-entity league boosted its expansion fee to $4 million this season (from $500,000 a year ago), and teams operate with a salary cap of $450,000.

The New York club operated at a reported $1.4 million loss a season ago, while the league lost a reported $62 million combined, and no games this season means less money lost.

Rugby is an international sport, and with borders closed around the globe, that remains the biggest obstacle for pro rugby in the states to open again. Douglas and a few players are living in D.C., but many have returned to their homes overseas, including Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Fiji, and South Africa.

If sports are permitted to return but there are travel restrictions, the makeup of the league could change.

Dunlavey feels Old Glory might have an advantage in that scenario, but it’s still a concern.

“An important component of our player base is the international player,” he says. “We’ve already been struggling with immigration challenges to get players into the country on visas for a variety of reasons. I think there’s a possibility there will be an impact of travel restrictions, but that drives us in the direction of developing domestic players. Most clubs will follow this model, we built a professional team that oversees domestic players but we’re connected to a whole development pathway with clubs and teams in the area that act as our reserve pool.”

With the uncertainty of the pandemic, repercussions of the shut down of sports are still being determined into the summer months. There’s no prediction on what lies ahead, but Major League Rugby and Old Glory DC believe they’ll continue being a part of the D.C. pro sports landscape.

“We were building something we thought was going well,” Douglas says. “It was taken away for a freak thing that occurred. None of us have seen something like this before, so we move on to next season.”