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If the NRL want to win over America, what happens in Vegas has to stay there all year around

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1st March, 2024
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There’s a funny thing about growing up loving rugby league: you learn what the word ‘inaugural’ means a lot earlier than other kids.

Our sport exists because of a fearless desire to try new things, to challenge the status quo and constantly innovate.

It’s why we ditched two players, why we limited the tackles, moved the defensive line, took away lineouts and made a hundred other alterations to the sport over the 128 years that it has existed.

Since 1895 – and, in case you watched the Fox League promo, that’s when rugby league was invented, not when Australia first got involved – we have defined ourselves as a sport that tried to move with the times.

If you wanted a conservative form of rugby, that was always there, but if you wanted the progressive form, it was there too. That was our raison d’etre.

Of course, not every innovation sticks, which is why the history of rugby league is filled with false starts.

As most readers will now know, this is far from the first dalliance with the USA in our history.

Back in 1939, the Californian rugby union authorities wrote to their British league counterparts with a desire to swap codes, only for World War II to get in the way.

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In the 1950s, a team of American Footballers toured Australia with some early success – they filled out the SCG, such was the intrigue – but failed to turn that into anything meaningful when they returned home.

There were exhibition games in the 1970s, amateur leagues in the 1980s, the Origin game in Long Beach in 1987 and a host of one-offs, hairbrained schemes, failed ventures and competing competitions ever since. Nothing has ever stuck.

This problem is hardly limited to rugby league, of course.

It took soccer to bring an entire FIFA World Cup to America to overcome the bonfire of greenbacks that had previously failed to generate interest, and even then, the embers smouldered for another decade or so before Major League Soccer claimed mainstream popularity.

Ditto cricket, which has long sought to make something from the millions of migrants from the Caribbean and Indian subcontinent and will try again with a T20 World Cup later this year. They too, have thrown good money after bad to draw in the almighty dollar.

League’s issues in expanding anywhere, not just to America, since 1895 have largely foundered on two issues: lack of cash and lack of nous. One is likely linked to the other.

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Now, however, there is a chance to change that.

As has been shouted from every treetop this week, the NRL is absolutely flush with cash after banking a record $58m profit on top of a $701.1m revenue in the last year.

Instantly the chatter came about buying Super League in the UK, which is highly fanciful if they mean buying it outright, though investment in a share of it, much as strategic partners IMG did, might have the germ of a decent idea.

Then you had the spruiking of NRL America, a projected pro league in the States, with Brisbane businessman Steve Scanlan touting for investment to make it happen.

There’s a joke in there about how many people have gone to Las Vegas with a lot of money and left it all there, but instead, let’s focus on the best possible outcomes could be. Nobody sits down at the tables thinking they’re going to roll snake eyes.

On our inaugural – there’s that word again – Roar League Podcast, we dialled up the godfather of league in the US, former St George Dragon turned US international player, coach and administrator David Niu, who knows more about the sport in the States than just about anyone else, and asked what success would be like for the first foray into Vegas.

(Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for NRL)

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“That they come back,” was his simple answer.

“That’s success. If they invest in coming back for year two, and play whatever combination of teams and the combine and the football festival, all that’s talked about for the next 12 months – that’s success.”

It’s that stick-with-it-ness that the NRL has to understand. This is their baby and, if they want to grow it, it can’t be about what happens back in Australia.

It’s smart to realise that, in the areas that play league in this country, there will be an inevitable market saturation that limits how many subscribers a streaming service can have and how many gamblers can lose their hard earned on a weekly basis.

Given that the only question harder to answer than ‘Can we crack America?” is “How do we get Sydney people to actually show up?”, they know that their revenue streams will eventually reach capacity.

It’s why they’re talking up expansion, so they can sell more content to Fox and Nine with extra timeslots while also branching to new markets, albeit within the limited confines of the Pacific.

Perth and New Zealand have new time zones and rich people to market to. Papua New Guinea has neither, but it does have a theoretically massive player pool, and Anthony Albanese is footing the bill anyway.

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The trick with America, and we have to hope that the NRL realise this, will be returning time and again until the stadium is filled with Americans, rather than Australians.

Much as the talk has been of garnering 1% of the gambling market, or selling Watch NRL subscriptions to expats, the only way that Vegas won’t be a loss-leading jolly for Aussies is if the stadium is increasingly filled with locals.

Between 1989 and 2007, the NFL tried this in Europe, conducting their own money inferno before losses of $30m per year forced them to wind up.

London Monarchs, the English franchise, started at Wembley Stadium in front of 25,000 people, went to White Hart Lane, Spurs’ football ground, with half that, and ended up at an athletics stadium in Crystal Palace with just 5,000 fans.

: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass in the fourth quarter against Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

: Patrick Mahomes #15 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass in the fourth quarter against Nick Bosa #97 of the San Francisco 49ers during Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Yet, due to a slower pace, a focus on timeslots that worked and a growth of the elite NFL product through repeated, consistent efforts, the London Series of NFL fixtures has built their product up into an event that fans love to go to.

The sport itself remains highly niche, but the NFL in London concept works, the stadiums are filled four times a year with largely British fans and it has undoubtedly helped the profile of American football in the UK.

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That surely must be the goal for the NRL.

If they focus continually on Vegas, go back time and again, they can make it a tentpole of their calendar, a trip for Aussies and, crucially, a gathering of the clans for North American rugby league.

If it is 75% Aussie and 25% American this year, the goal should be that in five to ten years’ time, those numbers are the other way around.

Creating that American supporter base doesn’t come from a one-weekend rodeo, rather a lasting commitment to providing content and slowly building, which is done for the other 11 months of the year through support for combines, domestic products and the international game.

Nobody is expecting the NRL to fund this entirely, but it is in their interest to make sure that rugby league remains important after the show has packed up and left town.

Their athlete’s combine, which sees 50 players (25 male, 25 female) trial in front of NRL and NRLW scouts, might not see anyone win a contract in first grade, but it can upskill those who attend to go back home and play rugby league every week.

As Niu explained on our podcast, it likely won’t get anyone over to Australia, but it will drastically increase the player pool for domestic footy and create an ecosystem that means that the next will be bigger and the one after that bigger still.

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For male athletes, it can create the opportunity to play at the international level and build a career, either in any NRL America comp that arises or as a development player/coach.

For the huge Polynesian-American communities, largely centred around Vegas and neighbouring states, rugby league is not at all new and can be seeded year-round.

For women, there’s a strong argument that the NRLW is the best competition in any form of rugby – or indeed American football, which has no women’s game – and is certainly the best paid.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

We have seen rugby union players cross over seamlessly and become among the best in NRLW, as well as former Matildas and AFLW stars, with the growing number of pro places a clear drawcard.

Ferris Sandboe, a Canadian international in league, has already blazed a trail for North American players by winning a contract at the Dragons.

America has a huge core base of female rugby-focussed athletes, built through the Sevens Olympic squad and the Title IX funding that ensure parity at college level for women’s sport, but nowhere for those players to graduate to professionally. This should be of the highest priority for the NRL.

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The NRL is using this first weekend as a loss leader, but it needs to holds its nerve on numbers and accept that it will be a long process. Part of that, of course, is what they choose to do with their cash in between visits from elite NRL clubs.

The rugby league market might be small, but the eventgoer market remains huge, and Las Vegas is the perfect place to serve that for one weekend a year.

The trick will be turning making that rugby league fanbase – an actual American one – bigger, which comes through bottom-up development work rather than top-down events.

Rugby league fans love the idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’. We call our game the greatest of all unironically, because we think it is, and sometimes act like all people have to do is see it once and be converted.

But if those converts don’t have their own field to play on, they won’t stick around. That’s always been the trick that nobody has been able to pull off – but the NRL has the best chance yet of doing so.

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