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On Sunday the National Rugby League goes to Vegas. It might just hit the jackpot

  • Written by Jason Doyle, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, Griffith University

Australia’s National Rugby League will launch its 2024 season in Las Vegas[1] this weekend, in the boldest attempt yet to capture the hearts and wallets of Americans.

It’s been tried before.

In the 1930s, legendary League administrator Harry Sunderland took the game to France and offered to take it to the United States[2] as manager of the 1929–30 Kangaroos.

He told the San Francisco Examiner the team was “willing to line up, with eleven men, against a regular American football team, and to see what would happen”.

Later, in 1954, Australia and New Zealand played exhibition matches in Long Beach and Los Angeles on the US west coast. Only 1,000 people turned up at Long Beach and 4,554 at Los Angeles.

Russell Crowe explains the rules and laws of rugby league, 2024.

Australia did better at Long Beach in 1987, putting on a State of Origin[3] match between New South Wales and Queensland in front of 12,349 fans.

Film star Russell Crowe tried again in 2008, staging an exhibition match[4] between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and UK Super League champions Leeds in Florida, attended by 12,500.

Will Rugby League Commissioner Peter V’landys be able to succeed this time, in a nation where his predecessors have failed to make much headway?

I think the odds are good. This is why.

No helmets, no pads, no timeouts

The potential reach of the NRL, promoted as football with “no helmets, no pads, no timeouts[5]”, is vast, extending to the 309 million Americans who own a smartphone rather than the few thousand who might turn up.

And after the H-shaped posts leave Allegiant Stadium and the NRL’s branding is taken down from New York’s Times Square, the league’s presence will continue.

It has reportedly committed to five years[6] of season openers in Las Vegas.

During those five years the NRL will attempt to build and sustain familiarity with the US public, as well as scout out US athletes about making the switch[7] to rugby league.

There are 520,000[8] student-athletes in the US, many of whom are trying to get into the US National Football League. But the NFL can only accommodate 1,696 active players.

V’landys has turned the game around

During COVID lockdowns three years ago, the NRL was “three to four months[9]” from being insolvent, according to V’landys.

He and chief executive Andrew Abdo say the league is now in the best financial position it has ever been in.

Its 2023 annual report outlines key reasons why[10]:

  • 9% growth in grassroots participation in schools and clubs

  • 40% growth in video views on YouTube

  • ten clubs vying for the women’s championship in a final watched by more than a million viewers

  • expanding representation in the men’s game with the admission of the Dolphins

Clearly, the NRL do not think their work is done.

This time it might work

Sports research has mapped the processes[11] that create fans for a sport.

The first pivotal step is awareness. Potential fans need to know about the sport in order to sign up. That’s the objective of the Las Vegas round and the advertising in Times Square.

The second is something that allows them to like and then identify with it. The advertisements point out rugby league’s similarities to the NFL, saying it’s “football, but not as you know it”, while at the same time emphasising the crucial and hopefully enticing differences.

US National Rugby League promotion, NRL[12] My own work has pointed to the role key individuals[13] play in developing sport fans. And this could be the ace in the hand of the NRL. “The Beckham Effect[14]” is a term coined to explain the uplift in support when David Beckham joined Major League Soccer in the US in 2007. Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi[15] achieved a similar feat when he joined MLS club Inter Miami in 2023. Closer to home, the Gold Coast Suns[16] cemented their legitimacy when they signed football legend Gary Ablett Jnr (and rugby league player Karmichael Hunt) to their inaugural AFL squad in 2011. Big names build recognition It’s not a strategy that can easily be applied to the US, but a raft of Australians familiar to US audiences including actors, fashion designers, media moguls, businesspeople and musicians are doing what they can. Currently independent from the NRL, plans are also underway to establish a ten-team American league[17] with proposed ownership stakes being offered to figures such as wrestling and global movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson[18]. If Las Vegas is a success, other US stars might just grab a franchise of their own. Las Vegas is certainly a roll of the dice, but if the NRL succeeds in grabbing even a small slice of America’s vast sports market, it will have hit the jackpot. References^ Las Vegas (^ take it to the United States (^ State of Origin (^ exhibition match (^ no helmets, no pads, no timeouts (^ five years (^ making the switch (^ 520,000 (^ three to four months (^ reasons why (^ processes (^ US National Rugby League promotion, NRL (^ key individuals (^ The Beckham Effect (^ Lionel Messi (^ Gold Coast Suns (^ American league (^ Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ( Jason Doyle, Senior Lecturer in Sport Management, Griffith University

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