United States

So, as all of the hoopla has died down and the NRL has packed up and gone home the debate now focuses on whether or not it has achieved its goal with its Las Vegas venture.

If you are to believe the Australian sports media, and those in Sydney and Brisbane in particular, the answer would be a resounding yes, however, it can be reasonably argued that they have a one-eyed view of the whole thing.

It would also be fair to suggest that many of them have probably been drinking the NRL’s Kool-Aid.

Seeing their reports and reading their posts on social media in the lead up to the 2024 season-opening doubleheader at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas, if you didn’t know any better you might think that rugby league had suddenly become the sporting flavor of the month in the United States. Not so.

On Saturday night itself, the two games between Manly and South Sydney and the Broncos and Roosters were good, no question about that. There was action aplenty, tries being scored and some good defense was on display from time to time. Everything a rugby league fan could ask for.

The Sea Eagles won their game 36-24, while the Roosters took out theirs 20-10.

The Australian media did go on ad nauseum about the NRL’s TV ads that were supposedly going to be broadcast in America to let US sports fans know that ‘the greatest game of all’ was going to be happening in the world’s entertainment capital.

However, the reality seems to be that other than perhaps in Las Vegas itself, the ads were nowhere to be seen. The NRL’s blather about Russell Crowe voicing an explanatory commercial came to naught.

Rugby League Planet did our own survey in the lead up to, and including, gameday and asked people in Phoenix, Atlanta and Montana if they had seen or heard anything about the NRL games in Vegas and without exception the answer was a resounding no.

Another myth about this deal that needs restating is the potential TV viewership numbers. Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman Peter V’landys kept saying that the games would be televised to 90 million households in the US on Fox 1. Nope, that’s wrong.

They were broadcast on Fox Sports 1, which is a cable channel that is available to 71 million American homes at best. It is currently the 32nd most popular channel on TV, and as the games were played in a time slot that is not prime time in the US (Sunday night is the prime time), the maximum number of eyeballs on Saturday night would have been around 140,000 (per Nielsen data).

The NRL was also up against NBA, college basketball, baseball and NHL games, all of which would have drawn more viewers.

So, now that we have put the Vegas venture into its proper perspective, what did it achieve?

The majority of the fans at the games were from Australia and to a lesser extent England, but there were very few Americans there. That is because the NRL’s marketing plan missed the mark. The TV ads were negligible, and a billboard featuring a Steeden ball in Times Square was pointless because any New Yorkers who might have seen it wouldn’t have had a clue what it was about.

Sure, it was a good excuse for Aussies to make the trip to Las Vegas, as there was a lot of other stuff going on simultaneously. NASCAR Cup Series, a Hot Wheels convention, Cirque du Soleil and the David Copperfield magic show to name just a few but that really wasn’t the point of the exercise. V’landys wanted Americans at the games and watching on TV.

Did it make any inroads into the American sporting market? No. Very few people knew about it besides expats who live in the United States.

For the most part, the media events promoting the games were attended by Australian reporters who were covering the Round 1 matches. As for US-based media, not so much.

In an on-air interview V’landys mentioned the NRL is trying to tap into the American betting markets and provide another option for people to bet on, which will, in turn bring more revenue into the NRL. They can then use that to put back into development of the game a grass roots.

V’landys had hoped that Americans would be talking up rugby league after the Vegas venture, but that’s not the case, not even close. If he sticks to his five-year plan to win over US sports fans the NRL’s marketing strategy will need to be revised.

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. Brian has his own YouTube channel @brianlowe5567 where he posts his interviews for Rugby League Planet. Be sure to check it out and subscribe.