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To the untrained eye, watching rugby football being played on an open field looks a lot like an out of control fight between two gangs of muscular ruffians hell-bent on snagging a swollen white football, but there really is a total method to the scrambling madness of this contact sport that originated in Northern England back in 1895.
There are officially two ‘codes’ of rugby football – one with 13 players per team called ‘rugby league’ and the other with 15 players per team called ‘rugby union,’ – with both versions sharing the same origin and most of the same rules but with a few minor differences that are designed to make rugby league a faster game with the ball in play more often.
For the sake of this article, though, we are going to focus on just the more traditional rugby union and its emerging governing body in the United States, Major League Rugby (MLR), and compare it to the National Football League (NFL) in terms of revenue, salaries, viewership, and attendance.
Let’s start by understanding how rugby union compares to American Football when it comes to the basics.
Rugby union is what most people think of when it comes to rugby, and it’s basically a game based on running with the ball in hand, with two teams of 15 players each fighting to touch the oval-shaped ball on the ground of their opponent’s end goal.
American football, the sport played by the NFL, is the number one attended domestic sports league in the world, and its popularity has even outshone American’s oldest pastime, the sport of baseball itself.
Rugby is similar to American Football on quite a few levels, but the two sports are different in so many other ways that it’s a good idea to first break down these differences.
Both American football and rugby:
— Toronto Arrows RFC (@TorontoArrows) March 10, 2020
In the NFL, players can score in one of five different ways:
In the MLR, teams score in three different ways:
The NFL lists its scores like this: Cleveland 26, Pittsburgh 19, which means the Browns beat the Steelers by a touchdown.
The MLR lists its scores like this: Houston 6-13 Seattle, which means that the SaberCats lost to the Seawolves by a score of 6 to 13.
And the list of differences goes on and on, especially when it comes to comparing the business aspects of the NFL and the MLR.
We compare the NFL and MLR, side-by-side.
Which of these two leagues makes more revenue?
Which sport do more U.S. fans prefer in 2020?
Which league is better preparing themselves for worldwide domination?
In this article, we’re going to answer those questions and a whole lot more as we examine and compare the NFL and the MLR – their revenue, salaries, viewership and attendance – and try to figure out which sports league is better positioning itself to be number one in America.
|Average Team Worth|
|Super Bowl vs MLR Championship|
|NFL quarterback: $4 million/year|
|Average Championship Viewership|
|98.2 million people watched Super Bowl LIII||The 2019 MLR Championship: San Diego Legion and the Seattle Seawolves received a 0.32 TV Sports rating or 510,000 two-plus households|
|16.5 million/game||The MLR programming ran in prime weekend time slots on Saturday afternoons and Sunday evenings, with 13 matches televised by the CBS Network, with the rest of the matches becoming the property of ESPN|
|180 million total viewers for the entire season|
|The NFL has by far more viewers than the MLR|
|16.67 million total||160,000 total|
|The average price of an NFL ticket is $112 across all thirty-two teams in the league||A ticket to see a rugby match costs about $30|
The NFL does, hands down.
For example, during the 2018 season, the NFL made about $16 billion in total national revenue, of which, based on the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), they gave 52 percent to the owners and 48 percent to the players.
However, during that same year, the MLR was in its first-ever season and the revenue numbers have not been listed publicly yet.
Given that each MLR team owner had to ante up $500 million to join the league and must be able to support their teams for five years, it’s safe to assume they have not reached profitable times just yet.
Again, this one isn’t even close.
The revenue from Super Bowl LII easily surpassed $500 million, and ad spending alone for in-game spots exceeded a total of $400 million, with virtually the same numbers as the previous season.
At this point, there is no estimated revenue posted for the 2019 MLR Championship, but given that it was attended by just 6,000 fans and watched by only about half a million people, it most likely didn’t come close to making the league the kind of money the Super Bowl tends to bring in.
When it comes to team worth, the NFL has a huge advantage over the MLR, with the football teams worth in the billions of dollars and the rugby clubs worth more in millions.
According to Forbes Magazine, the average NFL team is worth $2.5 billion, and all but five of the NFL teams are worth at least $2 billion.
The Dallas Cowboys are the NFL’s most valuable team and the world’s most valuable franchise. They’re worth $4.8 billion, and that’s up 14%, whereas the Buffalo Bills are last on the list with a value of $1.6 billion.
When the MLR started at the end of 2017, each potential team owner had to come up with a $500 million entry fee to join the league and they had to prove that they could financially support their teams for five years, so the clubs of this young league have yet to turn a profit and therefore their worth is yet to be determined.
NFL first-year players make an average of $365,000 per year, and they make their big money through bonuses, including a roster bonus, a signing bonus, contact incentives, and a few other formats.
The average salary of a typical NFL player is $1.9 million per year while the average salary for an NFL quarterback is about $4 million per year.
(For a complete list of the top ten highest players in the NFL, check out our coverage: Top 10 Highest Paid NFL Players in 2020)
Seeing as how each team in the MLR has a salary cap of just $450,000, the average salary of a professional rugby player doesn’t come close to what a pro football player makes.
It’s reported that the average salary for a Major League Rugby player is $58,425 right now, though there are European rugby stars (like Israel Folau and Dan Carter) who can make over a million pounds per season.
This one, again, is an easy win for the NFL.
During the 2019 season, the NFL increased its television viewership to 16.5 million per game, which equates to 180 million in total viewers for the entire season.
The MLR programming ran in prime weekend time slots on Saturday afternoons and Sunday evenings, with 13 matches televised by the CBS Network, with the rest of the matches becoming the property of ESPN.
AT&T Sports Network and local networks also covered the MLR matches that CBS did not, though no broadcast numbers are publicly listed at this point.
It’s estimated that 98.2 million people worldwide watched the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams by a score of 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII.
The season before that had 103.4 million people worldwide watch the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, in Super Bowl LII.
The 2019 MLR Championship between the San Diego Legion and the Seattle Seawolves received a 0.32 TV Sports rating which equates to about 510,000 two-plus households.
In other words, it’s not even close.
During the 2019 season, the NFL regular-season games were attended by a total of 16.67 million spectators, which has been about average for the last several years.
With 256 total NFL games played, that comes out to about 65,100 fans per game.
The nine teams that were part of the MLR in 2019 attracted just under 160,000 total fans during that season, but many of the stadiums that hold these rugby union matches seat less than 10,000 fans.
Once again, American football wins this matchup, with NFL ticket prices going through the roof this last decade.
The average price of an NFL ticket was $112 across all thirty-two teams in the league during the 2019 season, so taking a family of four to see a game becomes quite an investment.
On the other hand, a ticket to see a rugby match cost about $30 in 2019, so a family of four could get in for just over the cost of one NFL ticket, with MLR season tickets running just under $300 dollars.
Because the MLR is so new and most of its numbers have yet to be publicly released, this obviously isn’t a fair comparison at all, especially given that the NFL brings in more money and overall fans than almost all of the other major American sports leagues combined.
But with rugby’s growing popularity in the United States and thanks to the many channels of cable television, Americans (and their passion for athletic brutality) might start to fall in love with this untamed contact sport.
Once that happens, expect the powers that be to start investing some real money in this underground rugby sensation.
No sport that exists in the world right now brings in more total revenue or viewership than American football, though European football (i.e. soccer) is starting to come close due to its growing worldwide popularity.
For more on how those two sports compare, check out our prior coverage on NFL vs MLS.
But for now, expect Major League Rugby to attract a far smaller, though thoroughly passionate, audience consisting of die-hard fans willing to help this fledgling league grow by showing up live to support the now twelve teams of the MLR.
And as cable television broadcasts more and more of these exciting MLR matches (especially the semi-finals and championship series), the sport of rugby could begin to find a growing level of popularity in a country that seems to love watching grown men tackle each other at full speed.
We compare more major sports leagues to see how different they are when it comes to salary, budget, attendance, popularity, viewership, and more.
After graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a BA in Journalism, Richard Janvrin has been covering iGaming and sports betting since December 2018. Richard has covered betting at Bleacher Report, Gambling.com, The Game Day, Forbes, and more.More info on Richard Janvrin
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