What to look out for as NRL hits Las Vegas with big ambitions for America

“NO helmets. No pads. No timeouts. Witness Australia’s most exciting sport, Rugby League, unleashed in Las Vegas. Rugby League in Las Vegas. Allegiant Stadium, March 2nd, 2024.”

Those are the words being used to sell Rugby League to the Americans as the NRL gears up to launch its new season this weekend in the stadium that hosted the NFL Super Bowl earlier this month.

This double header, which will see the Rabbitohs playing the Sea Eagles and the Roosters facing the Broncos, will lack the celebrities such as Taylor Swift, who graced the Super Bowl, but it won’t lack passion from an expected attendance at the stadium in excess of 30,000 and an inquisitive audience who tune in for live coverage to Fox Sports 1, which is the leading sports broadcaster in the USA.

Hollywood star Russell Crowe is on board, however, and last week an NRL video of Crowe explaining Rugby League rules to Americans was viewed one million times on X (formerly Twitter).

Located adjacent to the Strip, Allegiant Stadium is fully enclosed and climate-controlled with a capacity of 65,000, which is the home of the Las Vegas Raiders NFL team.

As part of a massive week for Rugby League in Las Vegas, the NRL will also host a Talent Combine aimed at unearthing American athletes who could potentially make the grade as Rugby League players.

Fifty athletes (25 male and 25 female) will participate in a range of speed, agility, strength and skill-based tests, each designed to assess the individual’s suitability to play in the NRL.

Following the Combine, four athletes (two men and two women) who meet minimum performance standards and who display the potential to play in the NRL, will be invited to travel to Australia to train for up to two weeks with an elite Rugby League team. All costs associated with travelling to Australia and Vegas will be met by the NRL for selected athletes.

There will also be a Las Vegas 9s tournament taking place this Thursday and Friday from 8am to 5pm local time at Desert Breeze Park in Spring Valley, which is located two miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, with 33 teams from across North America expected to participate in the Men’s & Women’s competitions.

There will also be a four-team Under-18 boys’ competition and a three-team Under-18 girls’ competition.

Film star and Rugby League fan The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) and Australian NFL star Jordan Malaita, the former Canterbury Bulldogs under-18s player who now plays offensive tackle with the Philadelphia Eagles, will host a discussion about the NRL starting at 6pm (local time) at the Fremont Street Experience on Thursday at an event that will include the competing teams being presented on the stage.

On the same day the Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas will host an NRL Golf Day for 120 players at a cost of $1,500 Australian dollars per player.

On Friday the NRL will host a sold-out corporate lunch at the renowned Ocean Prime restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip while later that evening the NRL 360 & Matty Johns Show Live will be broadcast from Vegas at Resorts World on Las Vegas Boulevard.

On Saturday, the day of the games, from 8.00am to 5.00pm spectators will be allowed free admission to watch the Talent Combine with 50 High Performance Athletes participating in a series of skills and physical tests to see if they’ve got what it takes to play elite Rugby League in Australia.

And on Saturday there will be a Pre-Game Fan Zone in Allegiant Stadium’s Northern Car Park from 3.30pm to 6.00pm with a DJ, fan activities, food and drink trucks, a big screen and merchandise  before the first game between Manly and South Sydney kicks off at 6.30pm local time (2.30am GMT) and the second game, between Sydney Roosters and Brisbane Broncos, gets underway at 8.30pm local time (4.30am GMT), with both matches due to be broadcast on Sky Sports Arena.

The weekend’s double-header will be the first of five successive visits by the NRL to Las Vegas.

The NRL has entered into a five-year plan to grow the game in the States by playing the opening round there until 2028.

There has also been talk about the potential to involve British Super League clubs in the Las Vegas experiment, although no firm plans have been drawn up yet for future visits.

Asked about which clubs may be involved in the Vegas venture beyond 2024, NRL CEO Andrew Abdo was non-committal.

“No decisions have been made,” he said.

“We want to give all the clubs an opportunity to win over new fans, and start new relationships with franchises here, so we will have to rotate through that. We have to be strategic about who we bring here next. I don’t know who you need next.”

Australian Rugby League Chairman Peter V’landys, whose idea it was to start the season in Las Vegas, was last week re-appointed to his post at the NRL’s annual general meeting.

At its AGM, the NRL outlined a $103.1m increase in turnover to $701.1m last year, after a 25 per cent rise in crowds and 14 per cent jump in TV audiences.

V’landys is confident that the NRL can a much higher income with the help of the booming sports gambling markets in the United States.

It expects to receive a cut of all bets made on its competition from an American betting company partner, although a deal is yet to be finalised.

“Sports betting is becoming legalised in America in every state,” says V’landys.

“The Super Bowl generated $23bn in turnover.

“We’ve got three major organisations in sight. And we’re going to try to do the best deal we can from those. It’ll hopefully be done straight after Vegas.”

V’landys claims that the 2024 season launch in Las Vegas will cost only a little more than the $1.2m previously spent on season launches. But it is from the cumulative impact of playing in Vegas when the NRL hopes to reap long term benefits.

“It’s a big strategy, it’s a big risk. I’m not hiding from that,” V’landys says.

“However, the return is significant if we achieve it. It could be a game changer, not just for Rugby League, but for all sport in Australia.

“If we can get one per cent of the market in America … that’s three million subscribers. That’s $650m in additional revenue.

“Combined you could turn it into a billion-dollar export business because it’s such a big market.”

Whether V’landys’ ambitious plans are likely to be successful will become clearer after this weekend’s double-header.