Las Vegas gamble a high-risk, low-reward play by NRL … the US couldn’t care less about your funny little game

The blinding lights of Las Vegas have a reputation for attracting optimists and making them paupers. 

All dem fancy attractions along the Vegas Strip, the otherwordly glitz at the casinos, the free drinks and discounted all-you-can-eat buffets come from the pockets of those who think they can come to Sin City and hit the jackpot. 

Australia’s little old National Rugby League is the latest dreamer charting a course for Nevada’s most lurid destination and talking up the chances of putting a sport with a decent presence in only a handful of countries onto the world stage.

Hundreds of millions of dollars will start ching-ching chinging into the NRL coffers due to the supposedly huge spike in interest from the American betting markets and TV executives … if you believe the never-ending spin coming out of Rugby League Central. 

The reality is the NFL is king in the US, the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL come next, while Major League Soccer has made some noteworthy headway over the past couple of decades. 

Head coach Josh McDaniels of the Las Vegas Raiders celebrates after defeating the New England Patriots at Allegiant Stadium. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Prize fights in boxing are still huge as the UFC eats into its market share while golf, tennis and college sports retain their traditional place on the sporting radar. 

Horseracing and motor sport – NASCAR, IndyCar and the recent rise in F1 interest – are relative niche sports by comparison to the main areas of interest even though they are massive in their own right.

As for the rest, you don’t need to be a Metallica fan to know “Nothing Else Matters”. 

Cricket is trying to establish a foothold by pouring squillions into the Major League Cricket start-up and staging matches in next year’s T20 World Cup in the US. 

Even with the flowing resources of the IPL franchises and the ICC, there is still no guarantee that cricket will make anything more than a minor dent in the US market despite the many millions of fanatical expat South Asian fans who live Stateside. 

Which brings us to the NRL’s wishful thinkers – they are under the impression that playing two matches between four of their biggest teams in a double-header at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas is going to be the magic bullet that penetrates the red, white and blue sporting fortress. 

Y’all reckon?

Put it this way, let’s say the Gaelic Football bigwigs in Ireland wanted to convert Australian sports fans to their game which is kind of like the AFL but not really, like rugby league is to the NFL.

The plucky Irish bring out four of their finest sides to an Australian stadium and put on as big a spectacle as they can muster to promote their sport.

Will this mean you start watching this far-flung sport that’s on in an inconvenient timezone where you have no skin in the game?

Or if you are a betting desperate and you plonk a few shekels on the outcome of the contests in Australia for a curious flutter, are you then going to start following the Gaelic Football form on a regular basis and add this obscure pastime to your “wagering portfolio”?

No and no. 

And that’s what will happen in the US with the NRL (not that the large majority of local journos in Australia will dare say this because they’re all clamouring for a seat on the trans-Pacific junket next pre-season).

There can indeed be a halo effect from playing a sport in a non-traditional market.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Research has shown that the NRL engages casual fans in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne much more so for the rest of the season in the years when each city hosts a State of Origin game. 

But that’s a sport with which they already have a decent level of interest and knowledge, in a friendly timezone featuring teams and players they have actually heard of. 

The chances of seeing a Vegas local walking down the strip in Manly, Roosters, Broncos or South Sydney paraphernalia after the NRL double-header are pretty slim. (Actually, scratch that part of the theory for the Rabbitohs – a Random Souths Fan can pop up anywhere on the planet). 

Over the past few years the NBL has played NBA pre-season games against the world’s best franchises and it’s been a worthwhile exercise for giving the Australian league brief exposure to US basketball fans. 

But from the perspective of NBA fans it’s a novelty factor to play against a foreign team that gets forgotten as soon as opening night tips, not something that’s all of a sudden going to trigger an interest in the NBL season itself. 

Expectations for the NRL should be modest but the siren song of Las Vegas is sweet to those who can’t resist ignoring it.

The NRL has been enslaved by the gambling monster – or as a wise man once described it, “Gamblor” – and has been snatched by its neon claws.

Like most gamblers in Vegas, the best the NRL can hope for is to break even or perhaps even make a small profit out of this grandiose roll of the dice. 

But if anyone thinks they’re going to hit the jackpot in the crowded and virtually impregnable US sporting market, the odds are well and truly not in the NRL’s favour so don’t bet on it.

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