Baffling rules, shorter breaks in play and violence: impressions from the US of the NRL | Beau Dure

With a double set of games on Saturday night at the cavernous Allegiant Stadium, just a few weeks removed from its duties as a Super Bowl venue, the NRL made a tough sell to an American audience.

“I promise – I promise you are going to enjoy what we affectionately call the greatest game of all,” said Australian commentator Dan Ginnane at the opening of Fox Sports’ US broadcast of an Australian game being played on an American field in the alien city. from Las Vegas.

Many have made such statements over the years. Few have succeeded. But on the face of it, rugby league may have a better chance than most sports of making that elusive breakthrough in the US.

It’s violent and the American people love the violence. The rhythm of play is somewhat similar to that of American football, with teams having to turn the ball over after their opponents have made a series of successful tackles. Thanks to the lack of pads and helmets, the game is regularly stopped so players can get medical attention and TV viewers can grab another beer.

But one lesson we can all take from the hard-fought rise of soccer in the US is that selling a sport based on fireworks, booming music and its commonality with other sports won’t work in the long run.

So what does rugby league have to offer to stand out?

First of all, baffling rules.

“We will struggle to explain some of the intricacies of our sport to the new viewer,” admitted commentator Andrew Voss during the broadcast of Saturday’s second match, in which the Sydney Roosters defeated the Brisbane Broncos.

Despite the VAR controversies, football is benefiting from its self-proclaimed status as ‘the simplest game’. Here’s a ball. You want to kick it into that goal. To enjoy.

In rugby league, the idea is to move the ball around the field, stopping every time someone tackles the ball carrier and holds on to him long enough for him to have to hand the ball off to a teammate. The attacking team turns the ball over when necessary. tackled six times, and then they try to score a try by touching the ball, and you’re still paying attention?

Sure, American football is mind-bogglingly complicated. It has about five seconds of action, and then maybe 30 seconds of people with maps, laptops, and headsets trying to figure out what to do with the next five seconds. But that’s why it’s only really popular in one country, where all kids grew up understanding the concepts of a touchdown and a first down. If they grew up playing the popular Madden video game series, they even understand the concept of a Cover-2 defense or an RPO (run-pass option).

Rugby league has some interruptions from American football, but not nearly as many. and no long enough to squeeze in the commercial that makes Super Bowl Sunday interesting for people who don’t know who Patrick Mahomes is and only know Travis Kelce because he’s dating the most popular person in the world right now.

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And rugby league must make comparisons with that other rugby, rugby union. During the Fox broadcast of the festivities on Saturday night, a chyron informed viewers that Major League Rugby, the latest and perhaps best attempt to make the simpler and more globally recognized variant of the game successful in the US, was airing on the Fox Sports app.

Rugby League may not even be the most popular Australian sport in the United States. When ESPN had little to offer in its early days in the 1980s, one of the sports it stuck to was Australian football, with its lightly organized chaos and impeccably dressed boys ceremoniously pointing with both hands to indicate that there was a goal had been scored. .

Fox is also the US carrier for the AFL, and it would be curious to see if a typical rugby league match – and not just this heavily hyped event in Vegas, with a crowd full of wealthy Australians flying across the Pacific swinging around a new event and maybe catching U2 at The Sphere – comes close in terms of ratings to the typical AFL encounter.

Granted, if the NRL found it a challenge to squeeze its game into an American venue with restrictions based on the narrow NFL footprint, it’s hard to imagine the AFL would make frequent visits and adopt Death Star-sized dimensions .

That doesn’t mean we want to ignore the opportunities of rugby league entirely. The US has 330 million people, many of whom have more disposable income than brains. And despite different political movements, the overall culture here is less xenophobic than in the past, when football in the U.S. Capitol was labeled a “European socialist sport.”

If you look carefully, you will find people playing and watching almost everything here. We are hosting a few cricket matches for the next Men’s T20 World Cup, and assuming the country isn’t torn to pieces in the next seven years, Rugby Union will host a World Cup here too.

So if Las Vegas and Fox Sports are willing to host the occasional NRL game, then it’s worth a try. We would like to remind people who have watched rugby union or played it in the slow-blooming collegiate club game here that it is only worth four points in rugby league. Still better than zero.