USA Rugby League

By Brian Lowe, Date: 19/11/18

Spoiler alert. I don’t hold back or pull any punches in this op-ed, so reader discretion is advised.

For the past 12 months since last year’s World Cup wrapped up, there has been unending and monotonous blathering and blustering about how there is a need to grow rugby league globally, and more specifically, how it’s vital that the game takes hold in the United States because it’s the biggest sporting market on the planet.

Well, if you’re an expansionist who adheres to that school of thought I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the chances of it happening are slim to none. In fact, I’ll go further and suggest it won’t happen at all.

By way of a disclaimer, I relocated to the US from Australia 20 years ago to continue my media career and have been reporting on the game stateside ever since. I’ve seen a thing or two here in that time, so figure I might know what I’m talking about.

The way that a minority of fans in Australia and some of my fellow scribes, mainly in the UK, spruik about it on social media one would think rugby league is a brand-new concept in America. It’s not.

Notwithstanding the flash in the pan USA All-Star tour of Australasia in the 1950s, which really didn’t amount to much, the USA played its first international in 1987 against Canada.

Indeed, the game has been played here at the club level on a regular basis since the early 1990s and there has been a continuous structured domestic competition in the ensuing years.

This notion that we need to bring international rugby league to the US so that local sports fans can be introduced to the game and embrace it in time for the 2025 World Cup is total nonsense.

First, following the Denver misstep in which Moore Sports International (MSI) didn’t pony up all the money promised to England and New Zealand, one would have to be an eternal optimist to think the 2025 RLWC will be staged in the US and Canada because, in case you didn’t know, MSI is supposed to be bankrolling it.

Second, the proposed Australia-Tonga game that was supposed to have been played in New York City in October didn’t happen because the promoters couldn’t come up with the $1 million price tag to stage it.

Third, the NRL then went cold on the silly idea of hosting Round Zero in Los Angeles to kick off the 2019 season. Round Zero? Seriously? Come on. They eventually admitted they couldn’t find any sponsors for it, so canned the proposal.

Like the vast majority of Australian league fans, I rate State of Origin as the pinnacle of the game, followed by the NRL Grand Final. After that it’s a tossup between Queensland Intrust Super Cup/NSW Premiership, Foley Shield, then internationals. You see, international rugby league was never that big of a deal because it really wasn’t very interesting.

Some may think I’m being unnecessarily critical, but not so. The main reason I doubt rugby league will ever get any bigger in America than what it is today is because sports fans here prefer their own brand of football. I’m talking about the NFL.

Falling TV ratings due to divisive player protests aside, it is the king of sports in this country and by a country mile. Americans can be somewhat insular and when it comes to sport, they typically don’t readily embrace foreign stuff they don’t understand.

That is the reality and frankly, rugby league is barely a blip on the sporting radar here, something people in other countries just don’t seem to comprehend.

Internationalists seem to think that just because they like league, it stands to reason that so too will everyone else. Again, that’s poppycock.

I am not an expansionist. I am a realist, and I think the domestic competition run by USA Rugby League is where the focus ought to be concentrated. If you want to spend money developing the game, there’s no better place to invest.

The league can always use an injection of funds to help cover its overheads and it would help domestic clubs bring homegrown talent up through their systems with the ultimate goal of selection to the national team.

Look, the USA is, and always will be, a Tier 2 nation and there’s nothing wrong with that. So too are the likes of Fiji, Samoa, Wales, Ireland, France and the list goes on.

The club competition here is where it’s at and bringing in your Englands, New Zealands, Tongas etc won’t make a bag of beans difference.

As I’ve said before, rugby league is currently played in 70 countries, which means it’s already a global game, so how about you expansionists put a sock in it and cease and desist with your ad nauseum hyperbole.