The announcement by CBS Sports that it had agreed to a multi-year rights deal with Major League Rugby (MLR) to televise 13 games starting this spring, including a game of the week and two weeks of playoff action for MLB’s inaugural season, is a dream come true for Glendale and its many rugby fans.
MLR was formed earlier this year with seven teams, including the Glendale Raptors and teams from Austin, Houston New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle and Salt Lake City.
Glendale Rugby was the vision of the Chronicle Publisher Chuck Bonniwell, Michael Dunafon and Debbie Matthews, all of whom had played rugby. The team logo of a three-headed raptor represents the three founders.
The concept was to bring a sports team to Glendale which the town could rally around and bring a sense of community. As Chuck Bonniwell remarked, “Glendale wasn’t going to get a National Football League or Major League Baseball team, but rugby worldwide is the second most popular team sport after soccer, and little Glendale could make a mark, not only nationally but even internationally, with rugby.”
Mike Dunafon, now the mayor of Glendale, has been the relentless major driving force behind rugby in Glendale but it has not been an easy task. For its initial team in 2007 Glendale did not want to cannibalize the existing teams in the Denver metropolitan area so they placed ads in The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News for new players and brought in players from across the country.
One of the keys to Glendale’s success was the early addition of Stanford educated Mark Bullock, who is now the Director of Rugby for Glendale. Bullock has coached with great success the men’s team, the women’s team and youth teams. His intelligence, tenacity and broad range of abilities has made him one of the faces of Glendale rugby.
Glendale built a world class stadium specifically for rugby with a seating capacity of 5,000 which can be doubled for special events. The city also built an adjacent venue with artificial turf that is open to the Glendale public for myriad sports in addition to rugby. Dunafon ensured that the Infinity Park Stadium was designed to be a state-of-the-art broadcast facility which now meshes perfectly with the national broadcasting standards of CBS Sports.
The Infinity Park Stadium has won numerous state and national awards relating to its field and turf management thanks to the extraordinary work of Josh Bertrand, Glendale’s Director of Public Works.
It was always envisioned that Glendale would compete at the highest level nationally which proved to be a challenge, not because of the quality of the Glendale team, but the state of rugby in the United States. The top level of American rugby when Glendale rugby started was the Rugby Super League which refused to admit Glendale due to petty jealousies by older more established clubs to a newcomer. By the time the Super League was willing to accept the Raptors, Glendale was no longer interested and the Super League folded in 2012. It was replaced by the Rugby Elite Cup which lasted only one year before closing in 2013, which Glendale also declined to join.
National and international rugby bodies sanctioned America’s first professional rugby competition named PRO Rugby in 2016 which was owned and operated by a single individual, the quixotic Doug Schoninger, and also did not include Glendale. Schoninger was not up to the task and that league also folded after that single season (2016) amid acrimony and threats of lawsuits. Schoninger, in the process, lost millions due to his investment in professional rugby.
In the meantime, during those years, Glendale competed in whatever top competition it could find, including winning USA Rugby’s Division I championship in 2011 and the Pacific Premier Championships in 2015 and 2016. In addition, Glendale’s women’s team, now known as the Merlins, was also excelling, winning back-to-back National Championships in 2014 and 2015.
The CBS Sports television contract elevates the MLR, and American rugby in general, to a level never reached before. It is expected the league will attract traditional power houses on both coasts, and Chicago to join in the near future.
After a decade Glendale is now competing at the highest level nationally with country-wide television exposure thanks to CBS Sports. The Glendale team has some of the best players in the United States with international players from across the globe sprinkled in. It can be expected to compete strongly for the league championship.
The success of Major League Rugby is by no means guaranteed, but Dunafon and Glendale can be justifiably proud of the fact that the dream and vision, over a decade old, has been fulfilled. The future of Glendale rugby is bright and the upcoming season of Major League Rugby in Glendale should be one exciting ride.
- Editorial Board