By Brian Lowe, Date: 16/2/18
One of the major talking points within the global rugby league community right now is the possibility of RFL expansion teams in the United States.
The English-based Rugby Football League is expected to make an announcement sometime soon on whether franchises in New York and Boston will get the go-ahead.
Outgoing RFL boss Nigel Wood has reportedly met with backers of the proposed teams to discuss their plans and it’s understood that he has since made his recommendations to the RFL board.
The push for these expansion teams, plus mooted plans for two more franchises in Philadelphia and Hamilton in Canada, comes at a time when many within the game think the time is right to expand rugby league globally by feeding off the success of last year’s World Cup.
The proponents of the franchises cite the Toronto Wolfpack model as a workable blueprint. Toronto is playing in the English Championship this season after winning the third tier Kingstone Press League 1 last year.
The goal is to get into Super League in 2019, although that’s not a slam dunk at the moment as the RFL and Super League don’t agree yet on how many teams will be in the League next year.
But right about now, maybe we should stop and ask ourselves if setting up RFL teams in America can actually work?
Using the Toronto model as a guide, new teams would run at a loss, and not just for their first year.
The Wolfpack are being bankrolled by Australian mining magnate David Argyle and the club made it clear from the get go that it wouldn’t start to make any money for at least the first three years.
It’s understood new teams would also need to do what Toronto is doing, which is to cover the costs of roundtrip tickets to the US for UK-based teams.
On top of that, teams would need to find suitable venues for their games. Again, Toronto has set the bar pretty high by playing at Lamport Stadium and attracting crowds of between seven and eight thousand for home games.
The proposed New York franchise has identified Red Bull Stadium in New Jersey, home to a Major League Soccer team, as its preferred option, while the potential Boston club is reportedly looking at college stadiums around the city.
Look, here’s the thing. Just because the Wolfpack are working well in their market, it doesn’t necessarily mean that new rugby league teams in New York and Boston will be able to replicate their success.
Why? Because we’re talking about the USA, not Canada.
Apart from being almost too polite sometimes, Canadians have a different outlook on things, including sport. Generally speaking, folks from north of the 49th parallel tend to be more open to change and accepting of something new.
That’s not to suggest that American sports fans are not, but we’re talking about the big apple and Beantown, two bustling cities with a ton of stuff going on at any one time.
In terms of professional sport, New York already has two NFL teams, three NHL teams, two Major League baseball teams and two NBA teams, as well as two soccer clubs. That’s a crowded sporting calendar right there and now you want to add an RFL team?
Boston’s got teams in the NFL, NHL, NBA, baseball and MLS, so again there’s no shortage of sports to pick from on any given weekend.
Another downside is that American sports fans already follow all those sports, but for the most part they don’t know much about rugby league. Many think it’s rugby [union].
What all of this means is that if the RFL gives the thumbs up to the two new franchises, there will be a long road ahead of them and they will spend a lot of time spinning their wheels as they try to gain some traction.
You’ve got to wonder if maybe a portion of the money needed to get them up and running would be better spent on boosting the USA Rugby League, which already has teams in New York and Boston.
If you want to grow the game internationally, then surely a smart way to do it is to foster domestic competitions. That way you raise local awareness of the sport and attract more homegrown talent so that you have a grassroots base to build on.
Eventually, and granted we’re talking a little while, with more domestic players in the league and an improving standard of play, the USARL might just snag a broadcast deal that would take it into the future and which would then negate the perceived desire for any USA-based RFL teams.