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Rugby league's American dream still alive

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16th April, 2019
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Here in the great southern land of Australia, we seem to have a fascination with making it in America.

Everyone from actors of stage and screen, to comedians and captains of industry, seem to look for success either side of the 49th parallel.

The same can be said for our athletes and their legions of fans. Patty Mills, Ben Simmons and now Valentine Holmes create huge interest.

Leagues and codes themselves seem to see North America as some sort of promised land. Even the very Australian AFL is using the fascinating story of Texan-born Mason Cox, who stars for Collingwood as the face of its 2019 advertising campaign.

The continent has a massive population, record investment in sports, headquarters of almost all of the world’s biggest companies and some of the most gifted athletes in the world. All these factors make this market hard for Aussie codes and athletes to ignore.

Rugby league has long flirted with this market. Talks of awarding the USA a World Cup bid, an international between two-tier one nations last year in Denver and also the possibility of an NRL opener game in the US, it appeared to be coming to a crescendo.

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Yet the game was able to cannibalise itself, with NRL clubs expressing concern about the Denver fixture.

Valentin Holmes shows off for NFL scouts

Valentine Holmes (Image: Twitter/New York Jets)

Further, the Australian media, through their contacts, killed momentum around the game, destroying prospects of that fixture for the future and putting a pin in all forward-looking plans.

As far as the clubs were concerned, the US was too much of a stretch and it was far too hard to create any sort of presence there. They would much prefer the focus to remain at home, no matter how myopic this appears.

So it was viewed with a good degree of scepticism when English League One and Championship Rugby League clubs met last week in Salford to vote on the possible inclusion of new franchises from New York and Ottawa.

It definitely surprised when the clubs voted in favour of the potential inclusion of at least one of the clubs in the 2020 season (a final decision will be confirmed after the Rugby Football League complete their final due diligence).

The Ottawa bid is headed up by expansion trailblazer Eric Perez, who was one of the founders of the Toronto Wolfpack.

He has successfully navigated the political world of rugby league administration, as well as helping launch the world’s first transatlantic sports team.

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There is no one better to gauge the appetite for a sport like league in the Canadian capital.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez fronts the press.

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez

With a population just under one million and a proud sporting culture – with teams like the Senators in the NHL and Redblacks in the CFL – the city definitely has an appetite for collision sports and the smallish population allows room for cut through.

Add a ready-made rivalry with the Wolfpack and Perez’s ability to find enthusiastic funding opportunities, and the Ottawa bid looks appealing.

The New York bid is driven by fellow expansionist Ricky Wilby, a Brit who has previously worked with the Catalans Dragons, so he also understands the difficult world in which rugby league clubs operate.

The fact that this bid is situated in the world’s most famous city should surely prove helpful in luring players.

The bid is said to have a well-funded ownership group and a pencilled-in agreement with Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

Their close location to several US amateur league teams, along with the signing of Holmes to the New York Jets NFL team makes this new franchise an exciting prospect.

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The fact that the vote and outline of the bid was reported in the New York Times, arguably the world’s most famous newspaper, should alleviate some concerns that there isn’t an appetite for the team.

Agreeing to accept these clubs was a huge step for some of these tiny British (and one French) clubs and should be applauded.

Many of them count their crowds in the hundreds, not thousands, and operate on shoestring budgets and the goodwill of volunteers.

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The immediate reality is that another American team robs them of some away fan revenue and they have to plan a season around getting players, who almost all have day jobs across the Atlantic, to play in away fixtures even though both of the expansion clubs have agreed to pay away teams’ expenses.

So it seems for the first time in a very long time clubs have looked out over the M62 guard rails and dared to dream of the possibility of a river of resources that they so desperately crave. A land filled with wealthy investors, unburdened by the decades of negativity that the game heaps on itself.

North America seems to be a haven of Rugby League positivity, with the likely promotion of Toronto into Super League next year, the commencement of the US domestic competition for another season and the recent appointment of Nate Gladdin as a director of the women’s game in the USA.

Gladdin is a former coach of women’s soccer at the College level, so he comes at the gig with a unique understanding of the workings of both the Collegiate athletics systems.

Whilst starting at a base of almost zero female representation, Gladdin and the USARL realise that there is far too much female athletic talent in the US to not create a national team that will push for inclusion in the next World Cup.

This all culminates in never before seen opportunities for Rugby League in the North American continent. Hopefully, we can see it bear fruit in the near future and continue to read about it in The New York Times.