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NRL's big gamble a chance to pay off in Las Vegas

3 minute read

The name of the sport may confuse many Americans, but rugby league is taking over Las Vegas and the NRL is eyeing a 50,000-strong crowd at Allegiant Stadium.

A few days before the NRL roadshow hit Las Vegas, former USARL chairman Drew Slover laid out the biggest challenge facing rugby league in America.

"The first problem is the name ... it's arguably the worst name of a sport in the world," Slover told AAP last month.

Abrupt? Maybe. But Slover is adamant about his point.

"Because everybody thinks rugby league is rugby," he continued.

"And rugby is something people are generally familiar with - and even that might be generous.

"So people will say 'Oh, there is a rugby league here, a rugby competition'.

"And then on top of that, people will say 'What is rugby? A cross between soccer and lacrosse, right?'"

Slover's warning seemed prophetic in the early stages of the past week.

The All Blacks are regularly brought up by locals when told about the game, and even the on-stage announcer at the NRL's fan event was calling the sport rugby.

But slowly but surely the tide has began to turn in Las Vegas ahead of the NRL season-opening double-header on Saturday night (Sunday AEDT).

American media interest has grown from one appearance by Manly winger Jason Saab on a nightly sports show in Vegas on Sunday.

By Wednesday, two local reporters had turned up at Sea Eagles training and a separate launch event.

On Thursday the number of locals had increased, and by Friday stories about the sport were appearing in the New York Post and being published by Associated Press.

Locals shown highlights of games such as last year's grand final are almost all impressed, and at least interested to learn more.

More than one have compared the sport to the brutality in ice hockey, mixed with American football.

More pleasing for the NRL are the ticket sales.

Some 40,000 were sold for the event by Thursday night (local time), and the NRL is dreaming of the possibility of a crowd of 50,000.

About 14,000 fans are believed to have flown over from Australia, and 3000 from England. The Las Vegas strip is full of NRL jerseys.

But those from Australia and England will now make up less than half of the crowd.

"I've lived overseas and lived in places that love their football and love other sports other than rugby league," Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson said on Friday.

"For the most part, people don't care about rugby league around the majority of the population around the world.

"What (ARL Commission chairman) Peter (V'landys) has said is 'We're going to make sure that people start hearing the name rugby league'.

"They're going to start thinking about it. They're going to start seeing it in their own backyard. And we're going to dare to make this game bigger."

NRL bosses, players and coaches have also felt the tide turn this week.

They witnessed 5000 people turn out to Thursday's fan event in downtown Las Vegas, far exceeding expectations.

And they are growing more confident about Saturday night's crowd, and the belief that the sport can capture some interest in the American market.

"It makes us really proud of being rugby league people. We're proud of our game," Robinson said.

"This isn't a marketing exercise about something where we want to grow a brand.

"We think what (the players) do on that pitch is amazing. We think that when they (Americans) see what we do out there, (they will understand) that it's really, really special.

"And people can watch it and say 'I love that sport, I love what they do'. We're at the extreme end of team sports and we're ready to export that."

Where rugby league goes in the US beyond Saturday night will likely be more crucial than any crowd number.

Television ratings on Fox Sports 1 will tell a key figure, but so too will be whether Americans continue to connect with the sport beyond one weekend a year.

Talk of a semi-professional domestic league has emerged, with New York-based Manly owner Scott Penn suggesting the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans could be a target after retirement.

Big-name players are open to the idea, drawn in by the lure of living in America and growing the game in the United States.

Whether or not it comes to fruition is another story.

But if nothing else, the NRL has proved this week that there will be good reason to return to Las Vegas next year as part of its five-year deal.

It has also shown that, potentially, there is a way to make itself known to some sections of America.

"We're not going to achieve anything in the first year or two," former player now multimedia star Matt Johns told AAP while in Vegas with Fox Sports.

"It's going to be a slow burn.

"Major League Soccer, when it first started, they said all we wanted to do is capture just a sliver of the market. Well, that's really grown now, to the point that you've got film stars and whatnot owning the teams, and (Lionel) Messi (playing in it).

"Look at the way that they built it, slowly, piece by piece.

"Would a domestic competition work here? Who knows, but there's a such a large American market who just loves sport."

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