US Billy Walters

The NRL has wrapped up its week-long promotional visit to the United States to drum up interest in its planned series of matches to be played in the country’s tourism capital, Las Vegas.

Players from the four clubs that will be involved in the 2024 season opening double-header were flown to the US to take part in media events. Aaron Woods (Manly Sea Eagles), Billy Walters (Brisbane Broncos), Campbell Graham (South Sydney Rabbitohs) and Spencer Leniu (Sydney Roosters) spent the week in Vegas, Los Angeles and Utah talking up the ‘Rugby League Las Vegas’ venture.

Over the next five years, Allegiant Stadium will host 10 NRL games, starting with a historic double-header in March 2024.

As part of the promotional tour, Rugby League Planet was invited to interview Billy Walters in Los Angeles. We started by asking him how he thinks the Las Vegas venture will play into the overall strategy of growing the game and he said he sees it as a great opportunity.

“Being over here for this promo trip, we’ve seen how much Americans love their sport and we feel like we’ve got a great product in our game, and we feel like Americans will really love it,” he told RLP. “Any chance we get to try to tap into their market we should try and take it.

“We know it’s not going to happen overnight obviously, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and we feel like now is the best time.”

The NRL is starting from scratch because the fact of the matter is that most US sports fans aren’t aware of the difference between rugby league and rugby union, so based on that, we asked if he thought if the NRL could risk failing to meet its objectives?

“For sure. It’s got its risks, but we have to take risks if we want to grow our game,” Walters said.

“That’s the end goal, to try and grow our game internationally as best we can. We feel like America’s a great place to start. It’s going to be tough to try to pack it in and get everyone watching, but it’s something we want to try, and you never know what might happen.

“It can be tough international footy and obviously COVID kind of hurt that a little bit as well a couple of years ago, but I feel like it’s starting to build back up again.

“It’s something we’ve got to get right as a game if we want to grow. We can’t just stay in our little bubble of Australia, New Zealand for the rest of our lives so it’s something we have to figure out.”

Given that rugby league doesn’t yet have a lot of traction with American sports fans, does he think it will appeal to them?

“Yeah, I do actually,” continued Walters.

“I feel like if they’re open-minded they are going to love our game. It’s very fast, very skillful, very powerful with lots of big hits and we’re told that’s what they love over here so I suppose it’s on us to try to bring our best games and make it the most entertaining game that we can when we bring it over here.”

What will be the best outcome for the NRL at the end of its five-year plan? Will having American players involved in the NRL in the long-term be beneficial?

“Yes, I suppose at the end of the five years if we can have someone playing in the NRL comp who was born and raised in America I feel like that will help the game grow as well,” added Walters.

“Everyone loves hometown heroes. We’re very passionate when an Aussie makes the NBA or NFL. We love it, so we feel like it might be the same for them if they can get a homegrown American playing in the NRL. That’s a massive win for the NRL.”

As part of the NRL’s US marketing strategy, it will be hosting a combine for college athletes in the hope of attracting some to the 13-man code and Walters sees that as a positive move.

“I think once they give it a try, I think they’ll start loving it,” he said.

“I think it’s probably a good thing that we’ve locked in five years. It’s not just a one-off thing where people can watch it come March next year and go this is actually pretty entertaining and then wonder when it’s going to come back again.

“Consistency is the key. Just trying to push our game out there and making sure they understand the difference between league and union and I’m sure they’ll love it.”

In the recent past, attempts to make rugby league professional in the US have crashed and burned but Walters says he believes the NRL can overcome that hurdle.

“We know it’s a difficult challenge, we know it’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “But I’m sure [NRL CEO] Andrew Abdo and the whole NRL have got the long game in mind.

“Like I said though, you’ve got to start somewhere, and they’re brave enough to do it now and I feel like our game is at a point now where we’ve got the product that we can bring over here that the Americans are going to love.”

Walters said that from the players’ standpoint, they hope they can get a good crowd at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, put on some good games and have a successful trip. And he said they hope they can attract a lot of eyeballs as the games will be broadcast live, in prime time, on Fox Sports 1.

Brian is a strong and effective communicator with more than 30 years’ experience in broadcast and electronic media. He has been writing for Rugby League Planet since 2012 and is frequently the first reporter to break news stories about the sport. He has been our North American correspondent reporting on news in the US, Canada and Jamaica covering everything from league standings to strategy analysis to breaking news on key trades to editorials and colourful features on athletes. He is now writing about rugby league on a broader scale to cover developments around the globe. An accomplished storyteller, Brian started his career in Australian radio, before moving to the United States. He is an experienced podcast host and producer and is also a successful TV commentator having done play-by-play and analysis for ESPN, FOX Sports and the Rugby League European Federation (RLEF) among others.