UNLESS you’re a regular listener to the Big Sports Breakfast radio show, the name Dick Fain might not mean a lot.
Fain is a radio talkback host from Seattle who makes a weekly guest appearance on the BSB, discussing the latest developments in America’s major sports, in particular NFL, basketball and baseball.
Last week he managed to catch Sporting Declaration’s attention when BSB hosts Terry Kennedy and Laurie Daley asked him about the historic rugby league Test match in Denver, Colorado.
Unlike most Americans, Fain is familiar with the 13-man code. But he was completely unaware that an international fixture between tier-one nations England and New Zealand was being played two or three states to the east, at the iconic Mile High Stadium.
For mine, that summed up the dilemma rugby league is facing as it tries to become even a blip on the radar in the US.
The Test match, won 36-18 by England, was an entertaining spectacle attended by a crowd of around 20,000.
But outside of Denver, my guess is the vast majority of Americans knew nothing about it.
The game’s promoter, businessman Jason Moore, insisted this weekend that he intended to “push forward” and take other games to the US.
“I think it is the future of rugby league and for the sport to grow … this is just the start of that journey,” he told The Australian.
Moore’s enthusiasm was echoed by England coach Wayne Bennett, who declared: “I just want the game to embrace it … our kids are growing up with all the sports around the world.
“I want to be in that place – a marketplace where we can take rugby league and people know about it and want to come and see it and want to play it.”
But the suspicion is that if Moore does try again, he will encounter even more opposition from NRL clubs and coaches than he did this time, especially after the much-publicised dramas caused when Kiwi players experienced frustrating delays in catching their flights home.
Maybe Moore will be able to reach a compromise that enables him to stage follow-up games that are less likely to impact on the clubs who employ the players.
Alternatively, it may well end up in the too-hard basket, and rugby league’s 2018 venture into the US will join the 1987 State of Origin match staged in California, and the 2004 US Tomahawks v Kangaroos Test in Philadelphia as a quirky page in the code’s history.
The bottom line is that for rugby league to have any hope of cracking the US market, it will require a number of games over a sustained period, at a variety of venues, and not one-off expeditions every 15 years.
Naturally that would entail serious financial backing, and the big question is whether it would be worth such a gamble.
Such a commitment would presumably come down to how much faith people in high places have in their product. Like most rugby league fans, I believe it is the best footballing code.
The challenge in spreading the gospel in the US will be to convince locals that it is actually faster, more dynamic and explosive than the game most Aussies call “gridiron”. Seeing is believing. In many ways, the two codes share a lot of similarities, which would suggest that American NFL fans might understand and appreciate the fundamentals of rugby league: running, tackling, passing and kicking.
But is it feasible to sell the code that claims to be “the greatest game of all” in a country so notoriously insular it calls its own domestic baseball championship the “world series”?
The starting point will surely have to be that the NRL takes charge of funding and marketing it, rather than leaving it in the hands of an individual promoter.
Instead of a one-off clash between two international teams, why not take NRL matches to the US on a regular basis?
Indeed, why not play eight games there over a two-month period – featuring all 16 NRL teams – on an annual basis for two or three years? It undoubtedly would be an expensive exercise, but perhaps deals could be struck with airlines and hotel chains to lessen the costs of transporting and accommodating close to 500 players and staff.
For a change, the NRL appears to be on solid financial ground, after announcing recently a half-year surplus of $27.8 million, which it hopes will be a $45 million profit by year’s end.
Try re-investing $5 million of that each year, plus whatever can be secured in sponsorships, into staging games in America, from the east coast to the west, and who knows what the outcome might be.
As ARL Commission chairman Peter Beattie noted: “We are actually in a unique position to grow the game exponentially from now, because it is in such a good spot.”
Talk is cheap, Peter, unlike chasing the American dream. But sometimes, as they say, you have to speculate to accumulate.
For once I am inclined to agree with coach Bennett, who said before flying out of Denver: “I just don’t want to leave it behind like we left the other years behind, walked away and didn’t come back. We’ve got to come back.’’
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