Free-to-air, tempting talent: how NRL can crack the USA

Scott Bailey |

Manly and South Sydney can help put rugby league on the US map in the NRL double-header in Vegas.
Manly and South Sydney can help put rugby league on the US map in the NRL double-header in Vegas.

There is one key move the NRL can make to give themselves a chance of cracking the American market, USA Rugby League (USARL) chairman Drew Slover says.

“You have to make it free, then people will watch games,” Slover tells AAP of the sport’s broadcast rights.

Slover has been hooked on rugby league since he was taken to watch the State of Origin on a visit to Australia in 2005.

The experience prompted him to set up a side in Jacksonville with his Australian-born business partner Daryl Howland.

Within three years, 12,500 attended a pre-season match between South Sydney and the Leeds Rhinos in the Florida city – helped by support from Hollywood star Russell Crowe.

South Sydney Rabbitohs co-owner Russell Crowe in Jacksonville in 2007.
Russell Crowe threw his support behind a Florida match between South Sydney and Leeds in 2008. (AP PHOTO)

“There’s a reason why the NFL runs on (free-to-air) TV,” Slover says. 

“They want everyone to watch every single game, because they want every single eyeball they can get on the sport.

“If you make rugby league easy and free, people will engage with it. 

“But if you make it not one of those things, easy or free, you’ll build a big hill to climb.”

The NRL’s grand plan for becoming a billion-dollar export to the USA is two-fold ahead of Saturday’s season-opening double-header in Las Vegas.

Gambling money is the league’s greatest hope, with broadcast dollars following on behind.

The NRL hope to sign an exclusivity deal with a wagering company in the USA in coming weeks, with a cut of all bets placed going to the league.

For that to be profitable, you need eyeballs on the sport – and time-zones don’t make it easy for people to follow Australian rugby league.

Some games will likely be streamed on the wagering company’s app, which the NRL hopes to push to its database of punters.

The league also hopes to increase its overseas broadcast income.

Cable TV giant Fox carry some games, with the Vegas double-header to be broadcast on its main channel.

The WatchNRL app is the only way to see every game, with subscriptions ranging from $US17 to $US165 ($A26-$A252) a year.

At last count, there were around 3000 subscribers in the USA. 

The NRL wants to grow that number significantly, pointing to $650 million in potential revenue if they can tie down one per cent of the American market.

But as Slover points out, the sport must first attract fans.

“It’s got to be free for probably a long period of time,” he tells AAP. 

“If you can’t have that experience where somebody can just sample it, it won’t connect.

“What you want is for people to say, ‘Instead of watching my third-tier sport, I’ll watch rugby league’. 

“And the more they watch it, they’ll love it. It will go up the hierarchy.”

Almost all in rugby league agree the Las Vegas venture gives the sport its best chance of breaking into the USA.

Since the 1950s, rugby league has flirted with the idea of playing stateside.

But from 1987’s exhibition State of Origin, to Kangaroos Test matches and the 2018 Denver Test, there has been little commitment to a long-term plan. 

“It’s important that this is long term, and multi-faceted,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo says of the organisation’s latest plans.

“The true test of the value and return is fan acquisition in America, and globally over time.

“Yes, to monetise rights. But also the more fans following a sport, the more options you have – and the more sustainable it is.”

What officials must also decide is whether the target is primarily to grow interest in the NRL in the United States, or to promote rugby league as a sport.

“The two must go hand in hand,” Howland, Slovan’s old business partner, says.

“Get it on TV, and the average Joe sitting in a sports bar sees this crazy game and thinks, ‘It kind of looks like (American) football, but these guys don’t have pads on’. 

“Then for him to know this game is available locally at an amateur or semi-pro level … if you want to go watch a game live.” 

How the NRL should go about achieving that aim depends on who you ask.

Some suggest NRL-funded development officers being deployed in the USA, while others recommend assistance at a governance and board level after years of fractures.

Funding of the sanctioned USARL finals is another suggestion, in a bid to enhance the image of the league.

Slover says it is important NRL clubs take a chance on local talent, or align with local teams, if the sport is to take hold.

He points to the Latino boom in baseball in the 1950s, and believes a similar result can be achieved in rugby league.

“Let’s just say we find a high-school player that is unbelievably athletic, but he doesn’t have the grades, money or resources to go to college,” Slover says.

“We can send them to Australia, to take their athletic ability and use it where they can’t do that in the States. 

“They’re not part of the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball.

“In Jacksonville, there are players that I know could be good enough to be that first player to get in there. Maybe start in the Queensland Cup or something.”

Slover believes such a move would open the floodgates for more players, and give interested Americans a team and player to lock onto.

The NRL recognise the value of that untapped potential, and will hold a talent combine in Las Vegas on Saturday.

The USA remains an almost entirely untapped market for rugby league: whether it can be successfully mined remains to be seen.

“The amount of money someone could make out of it with a minor investment if it’s done well, long term, is ridiculous,” Slover says.