New York’s Rugby League Dream

Aaron Bower speaks to New York Chief Executive Ricky Wilby about the potential for a new club based in the Big Apple.

Perhaps it was fitting that New York Rugby League used last week, of all weeks, to show their hand.

The world is facing an uncertain few weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak. It is a step into the unknown, something we have never encountered before. How the same applies, at least in Rugby League terms, to New York, who will play in both domestic cup competitions in 2021 as part of a self-professed ‘soft launch’ before entering League 1 in 2022.

It wasn’t how they wanted to do things, of course. They were hoping to emulate Ottawa Aces and enter the league next year, but that has been knocked back. It has not waned New York chief executive Ricky Wilby’s enthusiasm for the project, however, or his desire to do things differently.

Forging their own path

With New York the third North American team to enter the league structure after Toronto and Ottawa, it’s easy to see why there are comparisons between the three.

But Wilby does not share that sentiment.

“I’m just hesitant to make any sort of predictions about where we’ll be in X years, or how many domestic players we’re going to have in our team,” he says.

A big part of Wilby’s manifesto is the American player pool and how New York not only will capitalise on it, but improve it and help strengthen it. A recurring theme of is to treat the project like the start-up it is while showing Americans the respect they deserve.

That is emphasised in his plans at grassroots level.

“We’ll have a dozen non-playing staff in place for next year, and most of those will be in America,” he explains.

“The intention is to have four development guys in America, and two here. It will be more than most clubs have in England (Toronto, League Express understands, has none) but we’re a brand new start-up and we have to build from the ground up.”

USA Rugby League

Wilby is cautious when asked how many USA-born players will make up the inaugural squad that will play in the Challenge Cup, the 1895 Cup and against several NRL teams alongside other trial games in 2021.

But he admits: “We’re here to give opportunities to people that haven’t had it before. USA Rugby League is in a stronger position than Canadian Rugby League, in the sense that it’s just more well-established.

“We have to capitalise on that, we’d be letting people down if we didn’t. There are eleven teams in the USA now, split between a north and south region, but they’re all along the east coast where we are. Brooklyn Kings is a club we’re keen to work with, for example. Potentially, we’d go in at the top of a pyramid of opportunity for USA Rugby League, and that’s not to undermine people already there. It’s because we can offer professional rugby.”

Building The Brand

Wilby has listened to concerns over financial viability so long as he keeps the identity of his investors secret.

That is why he has chosen this article to reveal that Steve Scanlan, an Australian businessman who has been on the BRW Rich List in Australia, is one of three key investors to commit to funding the first five years of the project.

But why only five years?

“We think that by the end of the fifth year we could be self-sufficient and be able to stand on our own two feet,” he says.

“They will still be involved after then, but we wouldn’t be as financially dependent on them.”

Since their launch in Liverpool last Tuesday, Wilby also added: “We’re closer to being self-sufficient quicker than that because we’ve had more interest in the brand. New potential sponsors, partners and investors have come to the table since we’ve gone public and my trip to the States this weekend has just got a lot busier.”

The Schedule

Many have scorned Wilby’s potential schedule and his other plans for New York’s soft launch in 2021.

That includes Sky’s Brian Carney, who said he would swim the Atlantic with a barrel of shark food on his back if all New York’s plans came to fruition.

“I just hope he’ll be in his pool practising,” laughs Wilby, before launching a passionate defence of his intentions for the brand.

“I’ve kept my counsel until now for a reason,” he says.

“Unlike others. I’ve wanted to wait until I knew something was happening before announcing it. That’s applicable for the NRL teams.”

The prospect of the likes of Manly going to New York to play in early February next year is certainly appealing, should it come off. And given the numerous false dawns in the sport previously, Wilby understands why some don’t expect it to happen.

But that is only one fraction of what he has in mind for New York.

“If we can get to 20 games I think we can make a good schedule for a year with no league fixtures. The NRL teams can grow their brand in the States, and it helps us launch in a whole new market. We’re targeting genuine Aussie expatriates who want to come and watch their teams play. In the Tri-State area – New Jersey, New York and Connecticut – you’re looking at close to 100,000 Australians. We’ve got a detailed marketing plan to target certain audiences so we’re not guessing, basically.

“We’ll play them on three consecutive weekends. We’ve also got contacts with several international teams. With the World Cup next year, you would presume there is an international break midway through the year, and there may be a lot of nations who want to play a game. Ireland stands out as one we’d like to have because of the obvious links in New York. Italy is another. We’ve even spoken to California Rugby League about a Tri-series, New York versus California. We’ve got lots of plans.”

On-Field Plans

Wilby will announce his coach, who is expected to be Mick Potter, later this year, before building a squad containing what he says will be around 20 established Rugby League players for 2021. How does he plan on convincing those players to give up a year of their career to play in non-league competition?

“We’re giving them something they’ve never been able to do before,” he says.

“I’ve already had some high-profile Super League players, and a couple of high-profile Australians, reach out. If you ran a squad of 20-22 overseas players and supplemented that with domestic players, that’d be a good starting point. I think there could be one or two out there who are ready to play in League 1 in 2022.

“In terms of the spine, I assume that will be UK, French, Australian. But then you could sprinkle that with some USA talent. I know it’s a statement people have heard before, about local talent, but the idea is genuinely to get out this year and identify some US talent that might not know too much about Rugby League and might be interested in playing it.”