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It's officially a 'historic day': Utah has a professional rugby team

SANDY — The state of Utah has its share of professional sports teams. Most notably the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake, but the Beehive State also boasts the Salt Lake Bees, the Utah Grizzlies and Utah Royals FC, among others.

On Thursday afternoon another professional team, not to mention an entire professional sports league, was added to the mix.

Introduced to media and fans alike at an inaugural press conference, held at Rio Tinto Stadium, were the Utah Warriors and Major League Rugby.

“This is a historic day,” Warriors general manager and former BYU rugby star Kimball Kjar said.

A seven-team league, with an eighth team, Rugby New York, expected to be a full participant in 2019, Major League Rugby is the first professional sports league headquartered in Utah.

League participants include Austin Elite Rugby, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, New Orleans Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves and, of course, the Warriors.

With a Nielsen-measured fanbase of 40 million viewers, not to mention television contracts with both ESPN and CBS Sports — local broadcasting rights are soon to be announced — MLR believes it has the tools necessary to succeed where others have failed.

“Professional rugby in America has been a sort of start and stop entity, unfortunately,” Major League Rugby’s chief revenue officer Michael Jaquet said. “That being said, these ownership groups and the teams that we are launching with are the right partners. This is the right time in America for this sport and there is a tremendous amount of opportunity out here.”

“Rugby is the fastest growing sport in America,” added Kjar. “Rugby has over 40 million fans. People are often surprised when they hear those numbers because they think that rugby is this unacknowledged or under the radar sport, but really, it has a large following here in the U.S.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in Utah. Utah currently has the highest per capita participation in the sport of any state and is second in total participation in the country, behind only California.

“Utah is rugby, and rugby is Utah,” said Kjar.

It is for that reason, among others, that MLR is headquartered in Utah and that the Warriors are the state’s newest professional sports franchise.

The Warriors themselves are chock full of athletes with ties to the state of Utah.

There is New Zealander Paul Lasike, who starred for four years at BYU, where he won four national titles and went on to play in the NFL.

“I’m really looking forward to playing rugby again,” said Lasike. “I am grateful for this opportunity. It is a huge honor and privilege.”

There are players like Kory Olsen, Afehelotu Tuineau and Lote Tu’ipulotu who are among the 10 Utah natives on the 36-man roster.

“There is nothing that has ever been done like this in the state before — or even the country,” said Olsen. “It has been unexplainable.”

In an effort to ensure the success of the league, the Warriors, and indeed MLR as a whole, are committed to bringing the best talent to the league, regardless of country of origin.

“We will have the very best American players and international players as well,” said Jaquet. “We are upgrading coaching overall and allowing players to do this full time and dedicate their lives to it. This is a great starting point.”

For the Warriors that meant bringing in New Zealander Alf Daniels as head coach. Daniels has over 30 years of coaching experience and as recently as 2016 was the Coach of the Year for the Waikato Rugby Union.

“We are going to prepare ourselves as best we can so that we can put on a spectacle that will be attractive to our community, our fans and our supporters,” said Daniels.

The Warriors will kick off their season on March 30, at 7 p.m. when they play host to the Glendale Raptors at Rio Tinto Stadium.