Some pundits are crediting the USA’s new Major League Rugby competition with the potential to revolutionise rugby not only in the USA but around the world.

This time the sleeping giant WILL awaken. But if what unfolded on opening weekend was the face of the revolution, count me among the loyalists.

In all three matches, I surveyed via YouTube (Austin at Glendale, New Orleans at Houston, San Diego at Seattle) mysterious minute-long stoppages of play appeared in both halves. I say “mysterious” because such scenes had never before been seen in the 195-year history of rugby union.

What’s the water break for ref?

Glendale, Colorado, elevation 5,200 feet: It’d snowed the night before and skies are dreary. Fans wear their parkas with hoods up. At 15:13 of the first half, Glendale has just cleared their lines from a penalty kick.

Viewers hear the referee’s whistle, followed by his voice over his on-field mic: “Time off – water break”.
The on-air broadcaster blurts out: “It’s a hydration break right now”, and is heard no more.

On screen, the camera zooms in on Glendale flanker John Quill of Cork, Ireland, as he approaches the lineout with his fellow forwards, determined to counter Austin’s recent momentum.

Quill is visibly perplexed, and his voice comes clearly through the ref’s mic: “What’s the water break for? Are we all right, ref? Can we play? Can we play?

Naw, we can’t play – it’s a water break” is the answer, and the referee spends most of the following 60 seconds trying to calm players who just want to get on with it.

It’s not me – water break” we hear him say more than once.

All the World’s a business plan

I presume if I had been watching the original broadcast instead of a YouTube replay I would have been treated to what we in the USA call a commercial. But seeing the players milling around trying to figure out what to do with themselves during such a historic moment was so much more revealing. Anyone who has attended a National Football League or National Basketball Association game will (or should) know how effectively such commercial breaks interrupt the momentum of play and detract from the atmosphere of the occasion.

This is the epitome of a slippery slope. It didn’t always take over three hours to complete a National Football League game’s two 30-minute halves. There weren’t always 20 commercial breaks including 100 advertisements. If and when the so-called “major” U.S. sports fade and rugby rises, those advertisers are going to want to go somewhere.

For Major League Rugby to cynically pass off unprecedented commercial intrusions as nothing more consequential than “water breaks” is an insult to our intelligence and a refusal to acknowledge a unilateral attempt to fundamentally alter the sport – OUR sport.

Who made you king?

Rugby’s international governing body, World Rugby, headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, maintains the game’s laws and guidelines among 120 member national unions. Changes in laws and guidelines, while far from uncommon, have by all appearances occurred only after careful scrutiny and through proper channels.

Thus World Rugby should be called upon to answer the following questions:

  1. Has commercial messaging been added to the list of nine authorized stoppages the referee is allowed to grant under Law 5?
  2. Is MLR out of compliance with international standards?
  3. If not, will this now become an international trend?

For our part, we the rugby community need to answer these questions:

  1. Is this OK?
  2. Do we want rugby to become just another quasi-sport, like the NFL or the NBA?
  3. Sports which have become businesses structured to deliver eyeballs to the advertising departments of other businesses?

A beastly game played by gentlemen and women

The world-renown “culture of rugby” we all cherish makes rugby union unique and, I will argue, superior to all other major sports. From 1823 until 1995 – a period of 172 years – payment of players was forbidden upon pain of lifetime ban from the sport. Although one reason for this was undeniably an attempt by the upper crust to monopolise the game (since only they had the time to run around in shorts) an equally important factor was an aversion to the hyper-competitive effects money seemed to bring to other sports, notably association football (soccer). Lest we forget, supporters of opposing soccer teams are today routinely fenced from one another in many parts of the world.

Let’s get it right

The American public deserves and desperately needs better sports than what they’ve been able to attend or see on television. Rugby offers not only addictive action, complex strategies, and compelling stories, but perhaps most importantly an ethos parents will want their children to emulate. Major League Rugby is on the right track. The sleeping giant IS stirring. But its full awakening has to be achieved without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. When the ad execs come a-calling, just let ‘em line up at the end of the match.

And so I say, “Long live the MLR” – just lose the phoney water breaks.

Author: Dave Wheelock

Dave Wheelock coached rugby for 19 years at New Mexico Tech University. He began his rugby career in 1972 at the University of New Mexico and has played in seven countries on three continents.

19 COMMENTS

  1. As a fan, I have no problem with the “water breaks” because 1) it’s my chance to go to the bathroom or kitchen, 2) the break is only a minute long so whatever and 3) if having commercials mean the league would be around forever, so be it. As I type this, MLR is in week 4 and things are running smoothly with having “water breaks” every twenty minutes. The players do need to be hydrate it even if they do not feel thirsty so that is okay with me.

  2. Thanks for your view, Victor. My point is that the point of these breaks is not really for hydration, but for commercial advertising. If you have played you know water breaks are an option in very hot weather, and that there are myriad other opportunities to hydrate players. My concerns stem from the history of advertising in other televised sports, which was once tolerable but has increased to a level that for millions has killed the joy of watching.

    • I agree with you on this part, I am afraid that it may lead to more advertising a la NFL’s commercial breaks. I am optimistic that this won’t be the case though and hope that this goes away after the league is able to bring in viewers and a revenue stream through alternate sources. As far as I know, MLS doesn’t have this commercial break and is also shown on ESPN+ but they have more clout than an upstart like MLR (which does receive a portion of the money through ad revenue).

      So far, most of the cases have been when there is a stoppage in play such as after a try or a player injury so that is encouraging. I have seen some after a lineout when a team is picking up some momentum and that’s disappointing to see but for the most part they are flexible with the breaks coming in at the most opportune time.

      I will say though that regardless of commercial breaks or whatever, there will be plenty need for hydration breaks in Houston, Austin, NOLA and Utah once June/July comes around.

  3. I’d suggest that if the ambition is to become a major sport, then it is all but impossible to achieve that without the coverage a major broadcaster can provide. This is not just about earning revenue for rugby but also about working with the broadcasters’ business model to provide the mainstream exposure the sport needs.

    However, the introduction of artificial water breaks is the wrong approach in a sport which is already struggling with unnecessary (if unpredictable) delays of game (injury, scrum reset, TMO etc).

    Given the technology that is now available I would suggest that adverts are show on a split-screen basis when penalty kicks at goal are being attempted. This process usually last about a minute, and doesn’t particularly need commentary or the full attention of the viewer.

    I’m sure it’s not beyond the wit of those concerned to come up with packages that would get around the unpredictability of the number of penalty attempts in any one game.

  4. Having mandatory water breaks every 20 minutes can stop a team when they’re playing quick ball. It’s not a good idea and should be stopped

  5. As much as we all love the purity of rugby, the game is struggling financially in many parts of the world, and has always struggled to achieve commercial success in the US. Super XV Franchises are folding and stadiums are not full. If Sponsorship keeps the sport healthy, take a water break.

  6. What ever the commercial justification for fixed ‘water breaks’ they will detract from the ability of American players to compete at international level. If they are used to a break every 20 minutes and then have to play without it both mental and physical fatigue will start to be a factor earlier in the game than for those players who do not have that break.

  7. If this is a way for the league to generate more income then so be it its only a minute. Its no different to watching a scrum reset which some times can take a couple of minutes.

    • I don’t think a couple of water breaks is the problem, we have them in nearly every game out here in the UAE. I think what everyone is scared of is this being the thin end of the wedge. Super Rugby is struggling for cash to keep their players, what if they adopt commercial breaks and it becomes more widely accepted? How long before it’s a water break every 10 minutes, or every 5?

      • It’s basically happens anyway with the stop start nature of rugby and the constant penalties every game. FTA TV here in Australia for NRL, Soccer and AFL have commercials every time there is a stoppage, super rugby can’t do that because it’s on paid tv. Maybe that’s what super rugby needs a FTA deal

  8. Hi all, my opinion is that the commercial aspect of professionalism surely brings a much more entertaining and widely broadcasted sport show, but that comes at a price

    for what regards the MLR it’s something you just need to start with some proper thrust the business, i’m scaredo too that it may become a water break every 10 minutes but that’s how teh league will be managed in the near future

    under this aspect i am quite sure that the support of the federation will make it clear that water breaks are needed just to stop the time for a minute ad or two, otherwise american players will never get to the international test level

  9. If your biggest issue with the league is that they’re advertising in the middle of games then they’re doing something right. I don’t think there’s a single sports fan in the world who would be upset with less commercials and stoppages, but this is a startup league and they have to generate revenue wherever possible. So if the water breaks, that the referee is allowed to mandate in any match, provide an opportunity to do so then good on them to jump on it. And of course the ref would tell the players its a water break because that’s what it is as the physical venue, as opposed to on TV. Nobody’s throwing up curtains with Geico ads, so something has to be going on.

    You guys also have to realize that the owners of the league are rugby guys, they’re not just gonna let things jump into 5-10 minute “water breaks”. I’d say a switch to a quarter (as opposed to halves) system would happen before that, but none of them want to change the game that drastically. Get your knickers out of the twist they’re in, and during the next water break instead of suffering and whinging, go crack a cold beer and hum the days of the week.

  10. Dave, a little off topic but just found out you had retired. In all my years as a USA Referee I have to say seeing you at the field was always a bright spot. Your teams, in my experience, were always great sportsmen and extremely well coached, many times punching above their weight. You are a credit to Rugby and have left an indelible mark. Thank you for the many years and always a thoughtful in not kind word field side.

    All the best!

    Kevin McCaslin

  11. I fear it is far worse than just a water break. Last Sunday at the Seawolves vs Utah match I left devasted by the tone of the match encouraged by the announcer onsite. He encouraged disrepecting both the opposition kicker and the Sir. I was so mortified I felt the need to apologize to some Utah fans on my way out ouf the stadium.

    It’s one thing to commercialize the sport and its another to destroy the foundation of respect it stands upon. I would honestly rather see the MLR fail than create a commercial league that is akin to the WWE. What a travesty.

    There is one more home match to get it right before I have to decide if I will give up our season tickets. I won’t support the destruction of the sport.

    • I hope your concerns are addressed sooner rather than later, Rena!
      When professionalism was being debated prior to the launch in 1995, one concern was the infusion of “bean-counters” into decision-making positions. Such people know nothing about the game’s ethos, nor do they care. They are simply intent on the ca$h.

  12. I think the slippery slope came and went long ago. My American dad played in the 50’s when there were no substitutions. I picked up the ball in the 80’s and 90’s when there were two legitimate injury subs allowed, boots flew indiscriminately in the rucks and scrums engages without all the fuss and flops one sees today (of course we hooked the ball and the ball went in the middle). Now we have 8 (or is it 9) subs, the 80 minute game is a long forgotten memory for most players and last I checked water is trotted on the field all the time now (it used to be just the magic sponge). So a break at the 20 minute mark to allow for a one minute commercial break – that helps pay for the game – seems to me a touch bit further down the slope than is being alleged. Maybe the fear is that we Yanks are beginning to figure this game out without the Colonial condescension we had to put up with from the ex pats back in my day.

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