Could Major League Show Jumping Help Move the Needle for Show Jumping Visibility in North America?

Could Major League Show Jumping Help Move the Needle for Show Jumping Visibility in North America?

Derived from the 18th century, the term “horsepower” originated to reflect the measurement of steel engines from the sheer power of the 1000 pound horse.  If you've ever been to a top tier show jumping event, you've seen the true meaning of horse power right before your eyes. It's easy to marvel at the strength, grace, and athleticism of elite equine athletes, but show jumping has struggled to keep the interest of non-equestrian viewers over the years.

Why? Many argue it's because it's difficult to understand the rules of the game, and as a fan it's much more enticing to have a team to root for. Matt Morrissey, an avid fan and businessman, became aware of this reality and set out to create an event that could entice the average citizen to come watch a horse show.

MLSJ founders Matt Morrissey (far left) and Keean White (far right) with San Miguel de Allende event organizers Eduardo León Escalante (second from left) and Daniel Rihan (second from right).

Matt has composed an event that could possibly bring spectators outside of its traditional fan club to cheer for their “home team” with the trappings of American sport: nachos, hotdogs and beer for viewers as they hoot and holler for horses and riders galloping through the speed courses. Introducing, Major League Show Jumping -- a 5* show jumping tour at some of the best venues in North America looking to create opportunities for athletes and increase the visibility of the sport. 

Solving for Simplicity

Matt originally collaborated his idea with Keean White of Angelstone Tournaments in Ontario, Canada, and they identified a void in the modern show jumping model. In order to make it more feasible for organizers to host 5* events, there needed to be a better way to engage fans. “Athletes at all levels were hungry for new and exciting opportunities, and once we recognized the voids, we set out to fill them in a unique way," says Matt. "So, Major League Show Jumping was born.” 

Matt Morrissey with top-three finishers Brianne Goutal (center), Paul O'Shea (left) and Lauren Hough (right) after the CSI5* MLSJ Grand Prix for the American Gold Cup.

In Matt’s eyes, it’s time to reinvigorate show jumping for fans and attract newcomers to the sport. The traditional horse show will draw a typical crowd of horse-engaged families looking to support their local barns and watch their favorite classes. Additionally, Nations Cup team formats can be hard to follow. Simplifying the format and marketing the draw of the team format with the beauty and athleticism of equestrian sport (which is an undeniable thrill for all to watch), Matt and Keean quickly found their answers to generate a really exciting competition.

Same, But Different

MLSJ has been often compared to the Global Champions League, or GCL, and naysayers don’t see the point in another equestrian league. But in many ways, it’s very different. 

“We took a really hard look at GCL during our development phases in order to evaluate what parts of a team competition will and will not work in North America,” Matt says.

Some of the differences from GCL look like this:

  • No horse jumps more than two rounds.  
  • Speed rounds are Table C. “We wanted to avoid a situation where the first rider has a rail down in the gold medal match and it’s over. By utilizing a seconds added approach it’s not over until it’s over because speed can overcome a rail coming down. This format does simplify the riding for most viewers, and keeps the fast-paced riding extremely excitable for all spectators.” 
  • The teams are franchised. The teams are all owned by the individual who purchased them in the beginning. The value of the franchise may increase over time. Depending on the demand, a team may be sold for more than it was purchased for. Teams pay a franchise fee, but are not responsible for re-purchasing it from the league ever again.
  • Pricing: created an individual structure that makes it no more expensive to compete at the ten events than it would be to go compete at ten 5* horse shows as an individual.
Matt Morrissey congratulating the Diamond Devils on a podium finish at MLSJ's stop at his own Traverse City Horse Shows.

Game On

With a full roster and set teams, now everyone can get behind someone to cheer for. The team franchises are purchased at the discretion of the team owner, and team managers/owners often share ownership with the riders; this decision is up to the team owner. Much like major league baseball, the NBA or NFL, MLSJ will incorporate year to year trading as well as a series. Teams are allowed to make trades and onboard new riders. Traveling from arena to arena, with colors, numbers and your favorite rotation of horses, the world's best riders are available in a style for everyone to enjoy. 

Initially, each team is composed of three professional riders and after the franchise has been purchased, the rider selection is solely left up to the team managers and owners to create their own rosters. “It was really important to us to create a true sense of ownership within the teams," says Matt. "The teams got really creative. Some turned to social media, others connected their names to their sponsors or managers. There is a team made up of Americans, Israeli, and Mexican riders so they chose to promote how riders from those three different countries came together and called themselves A.I.M. United. We have seen some really creative team rivalries pop up as well, so it’s been fun to watch.”

Additionally, the 2* components have thrived. A small, medium, and large 2* series has developed that runs in conjunction with the 5* events. The teams will travel across North America to compete ranging from Michigan, California, Canada, Mexico and more. 

The goal is a close reality: delivering a 5* tour schedule that hasn't been seen in North America while creating a sustainable league that affords professional riders the opportunity to be true athletes with their horses. Opening doors for sponsors helps show jumping thrive the way other major sporting events like the NFL or NBA have with a similar model.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that can succeed in the horse sport. Major League Show Jumping may just have the right recipe to finally give the sport a sold-out audience it finally deserves, and bring together the lovers of team sports, fast horses, and incredible athletes.


Teams & Standings:

Individual Standings:


Photos courtesy of MLSJ. 

Written by Troy Anna Smith

Troy Anna Smith is a Nashville-based writer with a BA in Journalism from Penn State University. Troy finds her passion through her daughter, her love of horses, and her two rescue pups. Some of her writing can be found in The Plaid Horse Magazine, Sidelines Magazine, and The Spark by Heels Down.