Australia’s National Rugby League following NFL model in trying to expand its footprint to the US

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LAS VEGAS — When Australia’s National Rugby League decided to try to expand its reach to the United States, it used a distinctly American sport as a model.

The NFL annually plays regular-season games in London, is in the midst of a four-year commitment to Germany and in September will make its mark in Brazil for the first time. The London games often sell out, and tickets were gone for last year’s foray into Germany within 15 minutes.

Now it’s the NRL taking its game abroad to the U.S., following through on a plan that first was discussed in 2020 as Australia and the rest of the world coped with the onset of COVID-19.

Four NRL teams will open their season Saturday night at Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium, which hosted the Super Bowl on Feb. 11. The games — the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles against the South Sydney Rabbitohs and then the Sydney Roosters versus the Brisbane Broncos — will be televised nationally in the U.S.

“A lot of us buy into the NFL back home and enjoy it and we want the same in America, to fall in love with our game,” said Damien Cook, who plays for South Sydney. “We spoke to a couple of (club rugby) teams down in San Diego who started with four teams and now they’ve got 14, so it’s definitely building over here. Hopefully, this game this weekend will give it a real good boost and America can love the game that we do so much.”

The games Saturday are the first in a five-year deal to bring NRL teams to Las Vegas, with new clubs rotating in over the coming years.

“We see other big sports leagues around the world like the NFL looking at international growth and international expansion,” NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said. “For us, it’s also multidimensional.”

Which, Abdo said, means the NRL is doing more than just playing the two games and going home. It’s also was about organizing a series of events to help promote the league, including a two-day national club tournament and a Thursday night fan fest at the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas.

The ultimate goal is to create a U.S. fan base and grow it similar to how the English Premier League has attracted a strong core of American supporters who follow teams such as Liverpool, Manchester United or Tottenham.

To help achieve that aim, the NRL is first working on making inroads on the West Coast, largely because Saturday’s game times come when Australians are awake Sunday. The four teams were sent to train and promote the league in three locations — Las Vegas, Los Angeles and San Diego — before they all gathered together this week in Nevada.

Oscar winner Russell Crowe, who grew up in Australia and is a co-owner of the Rabbitohs, narrated a five-minute YouTube video explaining the rules to American fans. The video has received 1.2 million views on X, formerly known as Twitter. It also is being used on TV broadcasts and on on-demand platforms.

“We think our sport, once Americans are exposed to it, they’ll see our sport is something that they will follow in addition to all the American sports that they love,” Abdo said.

The NRL is wildly popular Down Under, and it risks alienating such rabid fans by playing regular-season games so far away in a country that until now hasn’t shown wide interest in the sport. But Abdo said the feedback has been positive, and about 14,000 tickets were sold to Australian fans.

Three TV stations and two newspapers from Sydney also sent reporters to cover this event.

All four teams traveled last week to acclimate to the time difference, but it’s not purely a business trip.

The teams have made this like a bowl trip for college teams, taking in the sights in Las Vegas and Southern California. For Manly players, that included attending an NHL game between the Vegas Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs, and Brisbane players watched an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs.

“It’s really exciting for us,” said Reuben Garrick, who plays for Manly. “I think the U.S. loves their sport and we feel like we’ve got a really good brand to bring here. We want to show how exciting rugby league is and the NRL is, and we’re really excited to play at Allegiant Stadium.”

He called his initial impression of Las Vegas as “larger than life. It’s way bigger than anyone described it to us.”

Texas has long claimed everything is bigger there, and Brooks’ teammate, Ethan Bullemor, came to understand that when he traveled to Dallas last year and attended a Red River Rivalry game between college powers Texas and Oklahoma. He came away an unabashed Longhorns fan who cheers the team on from nearly 8,500 miles away.

“I think the way Americans do sport is just phenomenal,” Bullemor said. “They’ve got a huge population as well, which helps, and it’s very state-based. I think it’s a great opportunity for the game if we could begin to penetrate into the U.S. market and show them what our game’s about. It’s only going to grow our game even more and put it on a global stage and then strengthen it back in Australia.”

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AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby

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