Covid giveth, and Covid taketh away for Major League Show Jumping, a new series designed to add 5-star-rated competitions in North America via a team approach.
When the pandemic meant cancelled shows in Europe and Canada ‒ including the Spruce Meadows summer series ‒ while making travel across many borders difficult or impossible, enthusiasm for the program increased as riders stayed home in the U.S.
But pandemic protocols also meant that the series opener, originally set for this month at Thunderbird in Langley, British Columbia, had to be delayed for nine weeks and held instead in Traverse City, Michigan, during July because of Canadian Covid restrictions.
McLain Ward, who had expressed some skepticism a few years ago about the league concept when it was just taking shape, now will be part of the Road Runners team, where he joins Ali Ramsay of Canada and several Americans, including Kyle King and Kaitlin Campbell.
“The Covid scenario and lack of travel really made a great opportunity to have something like that within our country,” said the Olympic multi-medalist.
“They couldn’t have picked a better time to put it on,” agreed U.S.-based Irish rider Darragh Kenny, a member of the Blazing 7s, one of eight MLSJ teams.
“Americans are used to teams and team sports, so I think they’ll really enjoy this idea.”
As Ward noted, “In a normal situation, some of those type of leagues I haven’t gravitated toward. I don’t find this…as extreme in cost in buying in as like a Global [Champions] Tour. Looking forward with this Covid situation, where at times it didn’t look like we’d be able to travel with the Olympics on the horizon,” he noted riders needed to “find a way and place to compete. From that, it became a little more appealing.”
But how will it do when Covid is, hopefully, just a memory?
“That’s going to be seen in how the production is and how the events go,” Ward observed. “I know everyone is very enthusiastic behind it; like always, you have to put on a good event and people (will) want to be part of it.”
The 5-star ranking is the FEI’s highest for jumping competition, designated for the prestigious shows presenting the top standard and greatest amount of prize money. The 5-stars also offer the opportunity for riders to earn more FEI ranking points, key in securing invitations to the best shows. In some instances, ranking also may be used for entry to championships or selecting a team.
The Canadian border situation isn’t the only snag faced by MLSJ. The organization and its principals are being sued by the National Equestrian League and Jumping Clash of Spain, which claims the concept being marketed as MLSJ was theirs. The parties are looking at a March 2022 date for the case to be heard in U.S. District Court in Miami.
Meanwhile, an FEI Tribunal handed MLSJ a victory last month when it said the FEI followed proper procedures in awarding that series recognition. The NEL and Jumping Clash, however, have filed an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Among other things, NEL contends that MLSJ copied material from its website and franchise information. But Matthew Morrissey, who worked on the NEL proposal with Keean White, now his partner in MLSJ, contends, “MLSJ is totally different than National Equestrian. There’s a lot of misrepresentation in the lawsuit but in the end we feel confident…we’re going to prevail with all the information coming out.”
Daniel Entrecanales said he and his partner in NEL, Pablo Marquez, spent years coming up with a new team concept that was suited for television. The idea, said Entrecanales, was to insure that all the action started and finished with an hour, making it conducive to broadcast parameters.
Looking at the sporting scene in the U.S., where there is a National Football League and the National Basketball Association, they thought the national league terminology would work with equestrian sport.
Since they were based in Spain, the partners needed a presence in North America, and a third-party introduced them to Matt Morrissey, who is part of Morrissey Management Group with his father, respected show manager Michael Morrissey, whom the Spaniards never met, according to Entrecanales.
“When we signed on with the NEL, we gave everything we had to make it work…because we believed it’s a great opportunity for sport in Canada,” said White.
The men tried getting venues and sponsors for NEL, White continued, but things didn’t pan out. The parties differ on whether the NEL contracts terminated before MLSJ came out with its concept, and whether NEL had abandoned its efforts for a league, questions to be decided through the legal process.
Lisa Lazarus, an attorney for the NEL group, stated “All intellectual property and work product created when consultants work for a company belongs to the company, not to the consultants. This is not only by contract, but it’s a well-established legal principle.”
Morrissey contended MLSJ is “a different concept.”
While White said, “There’s some similarities,” between the concepts for the two leagues, he contended, “the scoring is different, the format is different, the way of engaging the fans is different.”
White also noted there are similarities “in the rules of show jumping” among several equestrian leagues, including not only NEL and MLSJ, but also the Global Champions Tour and the Longines Nations Cup series. He pointed out, “Multiple sports have two leagues.”
After NEL changed its business model several times, according to White, he and Morrissey “believed we had a model that would be successful and we decided not to continue working with the NEL…and we decided to go our separate ways and use our own unique idea.”
However, Entrecanales said, “They never told us they were doing this.”
He maintained, “The amazing thing after several years working with them…and they had been working for so many years in the equestrian world,..suddenly, in a couple of months, they had an idea 99 percent the same as ours and ready to be deployed. It took three years for us to organize; in two months they were able to deploy.”
While White wouldn’t specify the details of the league’s finances, saying they are confidential, he maintained the annual fee per team works out to less than what riders would pay on their own to participate in shows, including hotel and transportation. One rider confirmed paying $135,000 which included shuttles, entry fees, VIP table seating, stabling, and entry for two horses. The investment, which works out to less than $7,000/horse, entitles the riders to compete in the 10 5* shows each offering $660,000 in prize money/week.
All the teams pay an annual fee to the league and the league organizes the event. White compared that to the way the National Football League works. He said some athletes are in control of their franchise as team owners, but declined to specify which ones.
The MLSJ series appeals to Steve Hankin on two fronts. Hankin, who runs California’s Desert International Horse Park, will stage two MLSJ competitions at his venue and sponsors a team as well. He sees MLSJ as “An opportunity to hold two five-star events, which probably has never occurred on the West Coast and to reduce the risk of doing a five-star, because it brings a certain number of guaranteed spots. It was an opportunity to bring riders to the West Coast that either haven’t been here before, or for a long time, to get a picture of where the Horse Park is now and the improvements we made.”
Hankin, who will act as the manager of the Road Runners, explained, “We have a goal of helping support the high performance jumping component of the sport and to be able to more confidently host two five-stars and know they were going to be successful and bring riders from Mexico and Florida and Europe here, that’s what excited us.
“For us, the fall is the big emerging component of our schedule. I think we’re going to be able to build the high performance side of the sport on the fall schedule. Obviously it’s required a lot of investment from ourselves and the facility. That’s what we planned to do, but it’s certainly accelerated everything. We want to support West Coast riders,” continued Hankin, who is building a new 5-star grass field.
He calls the MLSJ concept “an opportunity to sponsor a team with a lot of the riders who ride here frequently and make it a little more economically feasible for them to participate. We’re actually quite excited about it.”
As for the legal action involving MLSJ and NEL, he observed, “We don’t think it’s an obstacle to getting the league kicked off.”
The Traverse City, Michigan, venue, which is managed by Michael Morrissey, is scheduled to host two competitions in July. The action moves to Canada in August, with one show at Bromont in Quebec and two in Ontario at White’s Angelstone facility. The tour is back to Traverse City in September and in two Mexican locations, San Miguel de Allende and La Silla in Monterrey during October and November. In early December, the season wraps up with two shows at the Desert Horse Park.
Brianne Goutal, a member of the A.I.M. United team, feels the North American show circuit has slowed down in the last five years, particularly in the Northeast. “This is really a re-invigoration…an opportunity to have something really cool in the U.S. I think it’s a whole new model…we don’t know what’s going to happen. Everyone’s optimistic and very excited,” she commented.
“They’re planning on doing a lot of TV and P.R. for the league as well, so I think it’s going to be great,” she continued.
“It has gained a lot of interest very quickly. People are saying, `If I can’t go to Europe, let’s do this.’ I think regardless of (Covid) this would have been a big hit.”
For someone like Goutal, whose involvement with her U.S. training business means she can’t go to Europe the way she used to, “it’s hard to stay home and keep active on the ranking list. This will open a lot of opportunities.”