Jacksonville Axemen

By Brian Lowe, Date: 28/1/19 (Photo Credit: Allene Rachal)

Let’s take a look at rugby league in the United States and spitball some ideas on how to realistically grow the game.

Let’s take the emotional ‘grow the game internationally’ mantra out of it and just review it from a matter of fact standpoint.

For starters, the game in America is semi-professional at best with players and coaches paying out of their own pockets to participate. That includes everything from buying their own kit to ponying up for travel. That means airfares and hotels, or at the very least hotels when they have away games in another state that can be covered in a long road trip.

Very few players get stipends. And by the way, the same is true for Canada and Jamaica, which is why we’ve seen GoFundMe pages set up when national teams need to cover their costs of getting to things like the Rugby League World Cup qualifiers.

League in America isn’t like the NRL or Super League in England where there’s built-in TV coverage, multi-million dollar sponsorships and big stadiums to play in. Well, okay, maybe not so much TV and big stadiums in the UK, although there are some broadcast deals and they have dedicated grounds there at which games are played.

To put it in perspective, it’s kind of like ice hockey in Australia. Yes, there’s a domestic competition but it’s not covered by the media, there’s no money in it and the only people who really care about it are players and devoted fans.

Rugby League players, coaches and volunteers in America are to be commended for their commitment. That is the reality of rugby league in the US, so let’s examine some doable options.

The first one that springs to mind is actually a proposal put forward by Moore Sports International (MSI) in 2016 and it had nothing to do with staging international Challenge matches in Denver. MSI proposed establishing a professional league.

Here’s a snapshot of what their vision was: a league comprising eight to ten teams with around 25 players per team and the season would run from April to July. Of the potential 250 players on the rosters, about 80 would come from overseas, meaning the majority would be homegrown talent.

Instead of attracting name players who would want big paychecks, the plan was to get players who just miss out on cracking it in the NRL and Super League, plus guys who play in feeder competitions like the Intrust Super Cup (Australia) and Kingstone Press Championship (UK).

Then there are called ‘crossover athletes’ – guys who may have played American football or basketball at college, but who didn’t make the pros. High School athletes were also possibilities.

At the time, MSI told me they had some international backers who would bankroll the competition. Those financiers were supposedly high net worth investors from Hong Kong, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

It was supposed to kick off in 2018. It didn’t of course as MSI was involved in last year’s Denver flop, but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the idea. If MSI or any other group could corral some heavyweight financial backers, it might just actually get off the ground.

And that brings us to another option worth considering – mirroring Major League Rugby (MLR).

It’s a professional rugby union competition in the States that kicked off its second season this past weekend and its business model might make sense for rugby league.

Private investors have put money into MLR, which is run separately from competitions organized by the national governing body USA Rugby.

This year there are nine teams in the league, including one from Toronto, and the players actually get paid to play. The base salary is $25,000, national team players make around $40,000 and the top players can earn up to $70,000.

Another smart thing MLR did was to negotiate media coverage for themselves, specifically TV via ESPN+ and the CBS Sports Network. Neither of them is part of mainstream cable packages, but they are easy enough to subscribe to and don’t cost an arm and a leg.

MLR has clubs located in the northeast, south and west coast so teams are based in some of the country’s bigger cities.

On the flipside, one of the major logistical problems with rugby league in America is that it’s confined to the east coast, so if you live anywhere west of the Mississippi you miss out.

There is no argument that league is a far superior TV product to union, meaning it’s not a stretch to think that if rugby league got itself on TV in America on a regular basis, there would be a good chance that viewers would likely tune in and it could go places.

The thing league needs to determine is does it want to be a serious player, and if so, would borrowing MLR’s business model to broaden its horizons beyond the east coast help it achieve that goal?