NRL seeks to revive its American dream in Vegas after 94 years of trying to crack US nut

<span>Brisbane Broncos players at an NBA game on their trip to the US, where they will play the opening round of the 2024 NRL season in Las Vegas.</span><span>Photograph: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images</span>
Brisbane Broncos players at an NBA game on their trip to the US, where they will play the opening round of the 2024 NRL season in Las Vegas.Photograph: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images

To rugby league, the US has long been its El Dorado. Visionaries of the 13-man game have long believed Americans would inherently love their game and that riches, fame and status would follow if only the code could be properly showcased.

The game, of course, has never been showcased well in the US. But attempts to crack the nut date back 94 years and have since floated around the far edges of rugby league thinking across the globe.

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ARL Commission chair Peter V’landys is often lauded as the game’s greatest visionary and he deserves credit for taking NRL games to the US, and for piling so much marketing and razzamatazz around it. But V’landys is carved from the same rock as administrator Harry Sunderland, who long held dreams of an American breakthrough.

Sunderland was an ambitious, grandiose, idealistic, relentless believer in rugby league. The Queenslander was the single most important person in establishing the game in his home state during the fledgling years of the code in Australia and would later play such a prominent role in England that the Harry Sunderland Trophy was awarded for 59 years following his death to the best player in the premiership decider.

During a time of global uncertainty in a game that has forever been insular, Sunderland believed league had a place across the Pacific. He unsuccessfully tried to take the 1929-30 Kangaroos to play matches on the west coast and played a secondary role in two exhibition matches played in California in 1954 between Australia and New Zealand.

The 1950s were a heady time for rugby league’s American dream as the game thrived in the years after the second world war. Buoyed by the success of the 1951 tour to France, American promoter Mike Dimitro brought a touring team made up primarily of Californian college footballers to Australia and New Zealand. The American All-Stars won a number of games and pushed both NSW and Queensland, but the tour was a financial disaster despite a crowd of over 65,000 attending one match at the SCG.

No US touring team has returned since. There were, however, teams fielded in the world sevens between 1997 and 2002, most memorably featuring an NFL-style spiral pass 40 metres downfield which referee Bill Harrigan called forward, and a US side that took on South Sydney during the Rabbitohs’ exile.

Three born-and-bred Americans have played in the premiership, led by Al Kirkland from that 1953 All-Stars Tour, who played the 1956 season with Parramatta as a speedy outside back. Manfred Moore played just five games for Newtown in 1977 but is etched in the lore of the club and the game when he famously threw a pass over the King George V stand at Henson Park. Greg Smith trialled for the Philadelphia Eagles before playing a single game for Newcastle in 1999.

While an Australian premiership match is yet to be played on American soil, remarkably there has been a State of Origin match. The NSWRL and QRL agreed to an unprecedented fourth match to the 1987 series to be played in Long Beach, California, where 12,000 people attended to see the likes of Peter Sterling, Wally Lewis and Allan Langer.

Internationals have been played in the US since 1993 but two outings in particular left a mark: in 2004 just 4,500 fans showed up to watch Australia defeat the USA 36-24 at Franklin Field in Philadelphia; and in 2018 England defeated New Zealand 36-18 in Denver in what was viewed as a showcase to staging the 2025 World Cup, but missed promoter payments led to future games being cancelled. The dream of an American World Cup was dashed.

Two English teams met in Milwaukee in 1989 under the banner of The Great American Challenge. The match between Wigan and Warrington featured some greats including Ellery Hanley, Des Drummond and Les Boyd.

But efforts to take the self-professed “greatest game of all” to the US have been inconsistent and typically left to outside-promoters. Little effort has gone into making the game look big and promotion has been poor at best.

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This latest foray feels different. The NRL is running it all. This time no expense has been spared, presumably given the enticing prospect of the money it can potentially make back if successful - the venture is being driven by the promise of gambling dollars, future television revenue and an opportunity to enhance the NRL brand.

Rugby league will never be a major sport in the United States. Nor does it have to be. Winning the hearts and interest of some and the awareness of a few more can give the NRL a legitimate footprint in a prosperous and populous nation that can open revenue streams and talent pipelines to give the NRL legitimate global appeal.

It will take more than this weekend’s two games in Las Vegas. It will take more than getting a few NFL players talking about the game. But for the first time, the nearly century-old rugby league dream of making it in America has a chance to succeed.