In seven years the Rugby League World Cup is to be taken outside of its traditional heartland for the first time, as North America plays host after missing out on the 2021 edition to England.
As US sports scramble in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn PASPA, could now be the right time for RL to attempt growth in the land where NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB stand proudly atop the sporting landscape.
While the time could be right to launch an attempt to break the monopoly, Peter Illfield, chairman and director of coaching and US Association of Rugby League Inc, spoke to SBC Americas stating investment will ultimately be key: “It will take the gambling firms to approach Rugby League and see the benefits in supporting the game, the game has very little to offer them at this stage.
“Whether it’s gambling firms or any other firms, it takes money and a return on the investment to support any sport or activity. Someone will need to devise a method that will make RL appealing to any firms, gambling or other, to have a major input financially, and receive a return on that investment. It will take investment.”
North of the border in Canada the Toronto Wolfpack seems to have successfully integrated into English RFL (Rugby Football League) competition, talk persists of the future role New York could play, the NRL (National Rugby League) is said to be close to taking a game to the states, whilst England are fresh off the back of defeating New Zealand in Denver.
“There has been no growth, expansion or additional resources for the game”
But as Illfield explains, without necessary funding and concerted efforts, talk is rather cheap: “There has been no growth, expansion or additional resources for the game. The RLIF are trying to assist with organising RLWC Qualifiers, but players from countries still fund their own travel & accommodation. Host countries pay for field and other facilities.
“There is a lot of talk from different sectors about it being the “right time” for RL in the USA, but there is no funding for the grass-roots amateur clubs or governing body. The attention only comes from promotors to gain revenue and awareness.
“There are many things to come about, eg TV rights etc to have the game exposed to the larger population before it can take anything from the more popular sports. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is a good example of TV promotion and exposure.”
Illfield adds: “One-off events have little effect on exposure and support of the game. They come, they go! The game needs both high profile games (eg NRL / Test Matches) then follow up with local communities. They played the England v NZ game in Denver, but there’s no RL played in Denver. It’s just a money grab.”
“There needs to be more teams based in the USA playing RFL”
Regarding the aforementioned Toronto Wolfpack, how viable would a team following in those footsteps through to the English game be: “Yes, there needs to be more teams based in the USA playing RFL. But watch the Wolfpack closely, unfortunately they were a Toronto team playing in England, now it appears they’re an English team playing in Toronto for half the season. There are very few Canadian or USA players left, if any.
“On that note, Florida weather, culture and environment is the perfect location for a professional team in RFL. It all takes money.”
Building towards the World Cup, which could be regarded as the ultimate vehicle to enhance a sports’ stature in multiple markets, Illfield addresses a common misconception surround the 2025 edition: “Canada & USA are not hosting RLWC2025, Moore Sports International are promoting and hosting RLWC2025, they have proposed to hold the event in North America. The RLIF have accepted that proposal at this stage. The Canada RL & USARL do not have anything to do with it. Have not been consulted, nor involved in the planning.”
With an enormous population of sports mad enthusiasts it would be remiss to dismiss the possibilities that the US and RL could bring one another, but as Illfield stresses a number of barriers currently stand in its way.
Chief amongst them, the almighty dollar: “There has been a lot of talk from many people and sections of the RL community about possibilities in the USA, there are huge possibilities, it will take funding to develop RL via High School, University and local club activities.
“It requires a top-down / bottom-up approach. Work on participation levels at the same time as exposing kids and parents to the elite part of the game while engaging major elements of exposure.”