United States

All of the boxes have been checked, and the NRL is already looking ahead to chapter 2 in 2025 after its groundbreaking introduction of rugby league to America.

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo says he believes that the 13-man-code can be positioned as a niche second, third or fourth sport in the United States, which is why the NRL kicked off its 2024 season with its doubleheader in Las Vegas in early March.

“This isn’t just about playing these two matches in America,” Abdo was quoted as saying by Sportspro Media. “It’s actually about winning American fans throughout the season.

“The live telecast of our games back into America throughout the year is critical to this, and that’s why it’s such an important partnership with FOX Sports. We are very keen to increase the number of subscribers we have in America.”

The NRL has a five-year plan to plant its flag in the US and wants to make the country a permanent part of its calendar.

And in tandem with that, yet another new private consortium has announced its intentions to start up a professional competition in the States. Rugby League America (RLA) is headed by Steve Scanlan, an ex-rugby league player who became a recruitment entrepreneur. He was former boxer Jeff Horn’s major sponsor when Horn fought Manny Pacquiao in their world title fight in Brisbane in 2017.

Scanlan has met with Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman Peter V’landys to talk about starting up the league in 2025.

RLA’s plans are for a 10-team NRL America competition. The reported plan is to have five franchises based in the eastern US states and five in the west. Scanlan was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying the competition could be called ‘NRL America’ if the NRL wanted to be involved in some way.

While this plan is separate to what the NRL has set its sights on doing, it remains to be seen if and when this one actually gets off the ground as several other similar ideas have crashed and burned in recent years.

That aside, the NRL is not the first football code from another country that has eyed off expansion into the US. The Canadian Football League (CFL) actually did it back in the mid-1990s.

CFL Gone South

While Canadian football is similar to the NFL, there are significant differences, such as the number of players on a team, field dimensions and some of the rules, although essentially, it is not too dissimilar. Kind of like rugby union is to rugby league.

The CFL had seven teams based in the States from 1993 to 1995 but with the exception of one that was established in Baltimore, all of the American teams consistently lost money. There were also wrinkles between the American and Canadian clubs over things like the different rules, scheduling and marketing.

CFL 1995 to 2014

Another problem with the CFL’s expansion into the US was its struggle to attract a big television audience, something the NRL experienced with its Vegas games not getting much in the way of viewership on American cable channel FOX Sports 1.

Other reasons the CFL’s expansion did not work included American sports fans not knowing much about the game, competition from other sports such as baseball, basketball, and the NFL itself, and high operating costs.

Consequently, the CFL returned to being solely Canadian-based in 1996, and its commissioner at the time, Larry Smith, called the American experiment a ‘retrenchment.’

To try to get a better understanding of what happened, Rugby League Planet spoke with former CFL quarterback Frank Cosentino. He had a 10-year playing career in the CFL, won two Grey Cups, is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2018, and coached at the university level, winning two Vanier Cups, the Canadian university’s national championship.

Cosentino says the CFL had its reasons for wanting to expand across the border.

“The original reason was to bail themselves out of their financial mess,” he tells RLP. “The CFL was losing money, clubs were losing their following, particularly in the east. Montreal, Toronto and BC mostly.

“There are some similarities, but the NFL was the epitome, and the CFL had a number of styles of play that were verboten in its eyes: a wider field, three downs, unlimited motion before the snap of the ball, 12 players on the field, and no fair catch. The quota of Canadians (per team) was not acceptable. It was all unAmerican and inferior to most of the public and the teams that were formed.”

Cosentino goes on to say there were particular reasons why the Canadian league decided to pull up stumps in the US after three seasons.

“The American clubs were looking for a financial windfall also, but their attendances were very low, except for Baltimore which had its own agenda,” he continues.

“The owner of the Colts left Baltimore in the middle of the night, so to speak, and moved to Indianapolis. Baltimore fans were upset and filled the seats, something that wasn’t happening with other teams. The US clubs were not benefiting, and once Baltimore moved back to the NFL, its replacement team, the Stallions, settled in Montreal.”

Cosentino agrees that American sports fans are known for being very loyal to their own four or five major sports but don’t readily accept other unfamiliar sports, which was another factor that eventually led to the end of the expansion.

“Yes, I think that is true most of the time,” he adds.

“The CFL did, in fact, benefit from the expansion. The money, approximately $3,000,000 in expansion fees, and especially the Baltimore Stallions moving to Montreal, plus, I believe, a stronger belief that Canadians could compete on the same level as Americans.”

Cosentino thinks that while the NRL’s plan to stake a claim in the US can be seen as an extremely long shot, it’s not entirely unlikely.

“It’s hard to see that rugby league football would be more than an oddity, but one never knows,” he says. “Las Vegas seems to be the venue where it might become a sport that draws on a regular basis as opposed to a WWW one.”

Cosentino, who is a professor emeritus and senior scholar at York University, is also an author. He has written many books including two about the CFL’s dalliance into the United States. Canadian Football 1995-2014: Home Again; and Canadian Football 1983-1994: Gone South.

You can find all of his books at http://www.valleyoldtimers.com/

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.