Australia's bruising, bustling rugby league could be Vegas-bound
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Australia’s National Rugby League is hoping that the old adage of what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, will hold true for its proposed first major push into the U.S. sports market.
NRL officials are optimistic that interest in their bone-crunching, virtually no-protective padding form of football catches on long after their proposed first competitive game outside of Australia or New Zealand in the league’s more than 115-year history.
At stake is the league’s entry into the gambling market in the U.S., and to get more brand exposure.
The NRL this week said it remains confident it will be able to launch next year’s regular season in early 2024 in Las Vegas, but still has hurdles to clear before confirming details of a match.
Any new sport would add to the gambling capital’s already plentiful pro sports portfolio -- the NFL’s Raiders, the highly successful NHL’s Golden Knights who are among the last four teams in the ongoing Stanley Cup playoffs, and the inaugural Formula 1 race on a street circuit there in November.
The WNBA’s Aces, dozens of world title boxing fights a year and, within three of four years, almost certainly, a move for Oakland A’s Major League Baseball team from northern California to Nevada are on the Vegas sports scene.
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo and chairman Peter V’landys recently returned to Australia from a fact-finding mission to the U.S. and apparently want a piece of that sports action.
“We’ve obviously been learning as we’ve been going and understanding what it takes to make this happen,” Abdo told Australian Associated Press. “The more planning we can do, the more successful it will be. It’s really positive so far.
"We’re going to put everything into making it happen, and we should know within the next couple of weeks if we can pull it off. We think there is an opportunity to win fans on the West Coast of America, which would be a huge opportunity for us.”
Questions remain, though, over the venue and logistics around the season launch.
Rugby league is a 13-player version of rugby which branched off from the established 15-a-side rugby union in 1908 and modified its rules. It is most popular in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific, northern England and parts of France. The two major domestic competitions are the Australia-based NRL and the England-based Super League. Players wear no helmets and little protective gear.
High-profile teams South Sydney and Manly are the two most likely clubs to play in a doubleheader in Las Vegas, with the Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm and the Sydney Roosters options to join them, AAP reports.
The South Sydney Rabbitohs have been co-owned for nearly 20 years by Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe, who would likely be front and center if his team was among those playing those opening matches.
If the NRL plays in the U.S., it would mark the first premiership game played outside of Australia or New Zealand since the league played its first full season in Sydney in 1908.
Rugby league played an exhibition “State of Origin” game in California in 1987 featuring all-star teams from Queensland and New South Wales -- the two states which feature most rugby league players. There's also international games featuring national teams, including a World Cup.
Abdo said he was optimistic that the prospect of a Las Vegas match had the backing of the 17 NRL clubs and broadcasters in Australia. In other words, don’t bet against it happening.
“I’m confident because I think we genuinely have all the stakeholders really excited for the proposition we’ve put forward,” he said. “I feel like there’s a lot of momentum, but we have to make sure we do it properly. That’s what we’re going to work through over the coming weeks.”
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