The National Rugby League’s (NRL) inaugural Vegas Round saw 40,746 fans witness two breathtaking games of rugby league football in the entertainment capital of the world. While many of these spectators were expats, this historic event has built the foundations for the NRL to enter the most lucrative sports market in the world. But what should happen next? And how can the NRL use this platform to strengthen the code globally?

As I wrote shortly before Vegas Round, the NRL’s key to generate US-based interest is to first establish the building block of fandom – awareness. Reports suggest that approximately 20,000 of the attendees were American residents who generally reported enjoying the spectacle and learning about rugby league. The real scalability lays in tapping into the American TV market and despite some delays in coverage due to overtime collegiate basketball, the NRL was shown live on premier channel, Fox Sports 1.

Turning Awareness into Attraction

Capturing attention as a once-off and generating a lasting interest are two different things. Research demonstrates how preferences for sports are formed when they are perceived to satisfy certain wants and needs. The high-scoring Manly Sea Eagles vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs season opener featuring breakaway tries will have played a part in selling the NRL to those in attendance and watching on TV as a sport like no other. Likewise individual performances like Joey Manu’s outrageous flick pass try assist, and Reece Walsh’s try scoring acrobatics in the second game provided highlight moments the NRL would have been dreaming of.

Arguably as important as those individuals showcasing the on-field product – like Walsh and Manu – are those who surround the game. As my research demonstrates, sport interest points are increasingly shifting away from specific teams and leagues capturing consumer attention – and is becoming more about the individual. For example, most people who have heard of Wrexham AFC have done so not because of the team’s achievements or any of the players – but because of their high-profile owners (more on this later).

Call it the age of social media or mark it down to shortening attention spans and increased switching behaviours – but the reality is power today rests in the hands of the individual. Research demonstrates how athletes form a key component in driving support of specific teams and leagues. A case-in-point is Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano), who has 623 million Instagram followers while his past three clubs – giants Real Madrid (@realmadrid), Juventus (@juventus) and Manchester United (@manchesterunited) have less than half (277m) of that combined.

Playing the long game

Yet, cracking the US frontier represents a different challenge where NRL players are not those likely to yet have the greatest cut-through. The best strategy here may be to garner the support of Australians already established in the US, and a handful of high-profile Americans who may be willing to throw their support (and dollars) behind the code.

With respect to the former, several high-profile Australians from Lachlan Murdoch, Russell Crowe, The Kid LaRoi, Daniel Patrick and Jordan Mailata assisted with publicity efforts for Vegas Round. Regarding the latter, US Superstars Rob Gronkowski, Jason Kelce, and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson featured in media efforts and were encouraged to support the NRL. The presence (or lack thereof) of US celebrities at Vegas Round was disappointing, yet this is a strategy I think the NRL should persist with, especially given the influence of celebrity culture in the US.

And celebrity involvement in sport is big business in the US, and abroad. Walmart baron Stan Kroenke owns multiple franchises spanning several sports across the US and overseas, Lebron James has an ownership stake in UK giant Liverpool FC, and even actor Ryan Reynolds has branched out into sport ownership, turning around the fortunes of Wrexham AFC.

Outside of ownership, having high profile fans can drive substantial awareness, interest and fandom for a sport. Just look at Taylor Swift’s impact on the NFL, which saw her romance with Travis Kelce drive significant interest in the Kansas City Chiefs – exposing the NFL to new markets, content creation opportunities, and reportedly driving an additional $331.5 million in brand value for the Chiefs and NFL. If it can work for the NFL, it can work for the NRL.

“… sport interest points are increasingly shifting away from specific teams and leagues capturing consumer attention – and is becoming more about the individual.”
Griffith University Rugby League

Where to from here?

The proposed 10-team American rugby league, I previously mentioned, remains one key area that the NRL should strongly support. Targeting high profile individuals as franchise owners and operators must also be a cornerstone of this strategy. While it will be new to rugby league, multi-sport ownership is an increasingly popular pursuit US-based ownership groups are targeting. And it is one that works.

Al Guido, San Francisco 49ers president explained how the 49ers purchasing a stake in English football team Leeds United could be replicated across rugby league, under the right circumstances. This highlights rugby league’s opportunity, which is not ever going to compete with the NFL but can complement it.

The vast playing population of NCCA athletes with only a minute chance of making the NFL represent one vast area to target outside of high profile owners and celebrity supporters. The NRL Combine has already gone somewhat to identifying opportunities for US-athletes to play league, with reports that an NRLW club may be the first to recruit a women’s US Rugby 7’s player.

Three ways to win

These are the three routes I believe the NRL should pursue to make the US expedition a success.

  1. Maintain a presence in the US, both with Vegas Round and over the next few years an American league.
  2. Ensure the franchises are sold not just to those who can afford them, but who have brands that will resonate with Americans and beyond. Encourage high profile people from all industries to support and be involved with the game.
  3. Invest in the women’s game. The NRLW are arguably better positioned than the NRL to benefit from US-based athlete transitions, and the league’s capacity and willingness to expand makes this playing pool a ripe opportunity. As well, Vegas Round including an NRLW game in the next few years should be strongly on the agenda of the NRL.

Dr Jason Doyle is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management within the Griffith Business School’s (GBS) Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management (THS), and the Discipline Advisor for the Sport Management group. I am an inaugural member of the University’s Women in Sport working committee, and am proud to have contributed to Griffith University’s first-ever Women in Sport Strategy.