NRL players Aaron Woods, Campbell Graham Spencer Leniu and Billy Walters at Allegiant Stadium, Las Vegas I Getty Images.

WHAT HAPPENS IN Vegas… goes the immortal line, one dreamt up by one of the city’s tourism agencies back in the early aughts and subsequently regurgitated by every frat guy or bunch of likely lads on a boys’ or bucks’ weekend. You might even hear it, hopefully tongue-in-cheek, from a few of the players participating in this weekend’s NRL double-header in Sin City, as they leave the field and hit the Strip.

The League, you imagine, would probably call the venture a success, at least PR-wise, if only a handful of players are nursing sore heads and backsides—thanks to drunken post-game tatts—on the flight home. Honestly though, this is more than just a PR exercise for the NRL; their Vegas dream is a calculated bet.

But first, let’s look at this through a PR lens. If a member of one of the four teams playing in the double header—the Brisbane Broncos, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Manly Sea Eagles or the Sydney City Roosters—were to struggle to board the plane on Monday morning it would be an unmitigated PR disaster, particularly given the myriad misdemeanours that were waived to get the players in the country in the first place.

It’s probably worth noting that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (a staunch Rabbitohs fan) hinted that rather than lay hard tackles on our players at the airport, it might be pertinent in this case, if US officials employed a laxer defensive strategy. “US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy understands our culture and understands not every rugby league player has a completely clean sheet,” Albanese said after a group of players were interviewed by US officials before flying out. Let’s hope for the best.

Bigger picture, what happens in Vegas is staying there—the NRL has signed a five-year deal to play their opening rounds in the city. The idea is that the event will grow bigger every year and hopefully, after five years, have become a legitimate and anticipated event on the US sporting calendar.

In that respect, the timing of the season opener is fortuitous. There’s currently something of a lull in US sports: the NFL season reached its dramatic conclusion at the Super Bowl two weeks ago, baseball has not yet started, and basketball and ice hockey are midway through their seasons. In addition, the two games are being broadcast live in prime time on the West Coast, on Fox 1.

No wonder the NRL has spared no expense in promoting the games in the lead-up, with billboards in Time Square and players and celebrities doing their part to sell the show on the Strip this week. NFL GOAT Tom Brady threw dead-eyed passes to Broncos superstar (and probably Australia’s answer to Patrick Mahomes) Reece Walsh. Russell Crowe banged on about the game’s rules and its virtues in a delightfully overwrought YouTube explainer: “Rugby League is football, but maybe not as you know it. Arguably the fastest, most aggressive ball-in-hand game that exists,” the Gladiator actor and Rabbitohs’ co-owner intoned, deploying his earthy baritone and portentous cadence to sell the game to wide-eyed American sports fans.

Getty Images.

Of course, marketing the game’s bone-jarring collisions and wind-sapping hits was always going to be part of the NRL’s plan in trying to win over American football fans. These Aussie boys are even harder, even tougher than your NFL players and they don’t play with helmets and padding, is the thrust of the message. If you can remember, the NRL pulled from the same athletes-as-warriors playbook when it first took the game to Victoria back in the early ’90s, an endeavour that managed to sell out the MCG thanks to an ad campaign that literally played the hits, big ones, over and over again.

On the night itself, however, you did have to wonder if 95,000 sporting fans had ever been more collectively confused. But whatever, it works, though it’s possible the careful focus on the ‘pace’ and ‘speed’ of the game, in this campaign, over the brute force of the hits, as was the case back in the ’90s, might be a small concession to the concussion issue hovering over all codes these days.  

The NRL, who are obviously not mugs, have invited Super Bowl hero Travis Kelce and his brother Jason to the game, though unfortunately the hard-hitting duo have apparently declined, with better things—post-concert smooching with Tay-Tay perhaps—to do. Thankfully, the ever-helpful Dwayne Johnson reliably followed the script, gushing that he wants to buy a franchise in a US rugby league competition.

What will happen in Vegas, of course, and the real reason the League is making its play in Sin City, is that bets will be laid on the outcomes of the games. The NRL is hoping to capture a slice of the $180bn US gambling market, a market that’s seen revenues grow by 45 per cent in the past year, after sports wagering was legalised in the US in 2018.

And the NRL does have a good chance of succeeding in its endeavour. The famous line about Aussie punters betting on two flies climbing a wall applies equally to US bettors—when Colorado opened sports betting in 2020, a time when most sports were shut down due to Covid, table tennis became one of the state’s most popular sports for gamblers. Three years later and the game still attracts more than $13m in bets each month, only narrowly trailing tennis and soccer. With the relatively empty runway in US sports right now, the NRL will hope it can become the new ping pong.

Helping its cause is the fact that NRL games are available to stream on US gambling company FanDuel’s app, with a so-called ‘watch-and-wager’ feature helping make the game more engaging to the customer and importantly, keeping them on the site. But while it’s a valuable space for the NRL to be, the truth is other sports are also on FanDuel and other wagering platforms, including the UK’s Super League rugby league competition.

It’s also worth noting that the NRL has made forays into the US market before. NRL games were broadcast in the US during Covid, though that time on a secondary channel, with live matches playing in the early morning. It didn’t catch on. In 1987, meanwhile, a State of Origin match was played in Long Beach, California, in which 12,000 people showed up to see Peter Sterling, Wally Lewis and Allan Langer lock horns. Similarly, international matches have been played in the US since 1993, though each time they’ve barely caused a ripple in the national sporting consciousness.

This time feels different. With the US’s huge population base, the NRL doesn’t need to be an outsized success. It just needs enough willing punters and sports tragics to buy into the game’s charms, to enable it to gain a foothold. Cricket is trying the same thing right now with a new US league and the staging of the Twenty20 World Cup in June. If you can make it in the US, you can’t necessarily make it anywhere, but that’s the point, you don’t need to (see American sports like NFL and ice hockey) because the sheer number of eyeballs and associated economic clout can sustain you.

The old maxims, ‘if it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense’, or ‘cash rules everything around me’ etc, have never been more applicable than they are this weekend in Sin City. Which is why, in the case of this particular boys’ trip to Vegas, even if a few players do consort with strippers and get facial tatts, it’s probably a good bet that the NRL won’t wake up with too much of a ‘hangover’.


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