USA Rugby League

By Brian Lowe

Rugby League fans could be forgiven for thinking rival codes are moving ahead with plans to expand in the United States, and more particularly Los Angeles, while the 13-man code spins its wheels.

Ever since the Toronto Wolfpack started competing in the RFL’s League One in 2017, there has been a movement akin to a whirling dervish to start up a similar professional team in the US, specifically in New York City.

However, to date, it hasn’t eventuated although RugbyLeaguePlanet has been told the RFL is expected to make an announcement on it within weeks.

In the last few years, Rugby Union has been making strides, albeit relatively unnoticed by American sports fans, with the establishment of Major League Rugby (MLR).

The 12-team professional competition is now into its third season. It has a deal with CBS Sports Network’s online platform, an arrangement it pays for in order to get coverage, and a partnership with ESPN+. Average crowds at games were 2,100 in 2019. Los Angeles doesn’t have a team in the comp, but there is one in San Diego, just a two-hour drive south on Interstate 5.

NBC Sports televises Rugby 7s, plus selected European competitions. It got some decent numbers during last year’s Rugby World Cup when 650,000 people in the States tuned in for the final between England and South Africa, but that was a one-off game.

In regard to 7s, the US leg of the world series will be back in Los Angeles this month after a multi-year stint in Las Vegas.

Rugby, being the political beast that it is, saw the USA 7s become embroiled in a stoush between the private company that owned the rights to it and World Rugby, the sport’s international governing body. Eventually their partnership was dissolved, and a decision was made to bring the event back to the city of angels.

It’ll be played at Dignity Health Sports Park, a 27,000-seat stadium that is home to the LA Galaxy soccer team. It used to be the Home Depot Center and is where the US leg of the 7s series was first held from 2004 to 2006.

Rugby isn’t the only rival code that is looking to establish itself in Los Angeles, however, as news out of Melbourne in early February reported that AFL club Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS) has been given the okay by the AFL to do its homework on playing a game in southern California in 2021.

“The GWS Giants have raised the idea of a game in California with the AFL and, while there is no formal request, we are supportive of the club looking at options and whether there is an appropriate venue and the necessary support to make a game work,” an AFL spokesman was quoted as saying in Australian media.

The move fits in with the AFL’s plans to globalise the sport but finding a suitable ground could be an issue. GWS is reportedly looking at cricket grounds that have been built in the LA area, as well as boutique stadiums with a capacity for up to 20,000 fans.

So, where does all of this leave rugby league?

In June 2018, the NRL announced that it was looking at staging a game in Los Angeles. The idea was to play what the NRL called a ‘round zero’ match to kick off the 2019 season, but for various reasons it didn’t happen.

As RLP was told in September 2018, one of the main stumbling blocks was that the NRL was unable to lock in a sponsor for the game. The idea has since been consigned to the scrap heap.

While all that was going on, Denver hosted the Rugby League Football International Challenge between England and New Zealand in June 2018. It was supposed to be the first of three annual games between the two countries, but as we all now know, that plan turned out to be a flop.

Suffice it to say that rugby league is currently 0-1 in Los Angeles, 0-2 nationally and strike three is potentially looming in New York.