How rugby leagues US push won private praise from AFL and club bosses

How rugby league’s US push won private praise from AFL and club bosses

The recent foray of the National Rugby League (NRL) into the uncharted territory of the United States market has sent ripples across the Australian sporting landscape, even reaching the shores of its domestic rival, the Australian Football League (AFL). While the two codes have traditionally been locked in a fierce battle for dominance within Australia, the NRL’s audacious American experiment has garnered, somewhat surprisingly, private praise from AFL bosses and club executives.

This unexpected development stems from the NRL’s successful launch of the “Nines” tournament in Las Vegas in February 2024. The fast-paced, high-scoring format of the Nines proved to be a hit with American audiences, attracting a decent crowd and generating positive media coverage. This success, according to sources present at a recent AFL commission meeting, sparked conversations among league and club officials, with a sense of grudging admiration mixed with a hint of concern.

The primary factor behind this newfound respect is the perceived strategic brilliance of the NRL’s move. The American market, with its vast population and burgeoning sporting culture, represents a potentially game-changing opportunity for any sport. By establishing a foothold early on, the NRL has positioned itself to capitalize on this potential, potentially securing a loyal fanbase and lucrative commercial deals in the years to come.

This strategic foresight stands in stark contrast to the AFL’s recent struggles in its own backyard. While the league boasts a strong presence in the southern states of Australia, particularly Victoria, its attempts to expand into the traditional rugby league heartlands of New South Wales and Queensland have been met with limited success. This frustration was evident last year when club bosses from Sydney voiced their concerns about the declining popularity of the sport in their state, while the Giants chief executive, David Matthews, publicly acknowledged the NRL’s growing strength since the establishment of his club in 2012.

The NRL’s American venture has, therefore, served as a wake-up call for the AFL. It has highlighted the importance of proactive strategic thinking and the potential rewards of venturing outside established comfort zones. This realization has manifested in the AFL’s recently announced billion-dollar plan, aiming to make Australian football a household name across the globe within the next decade.

However, the path to global domination is fraught with challenges. The AFL, unlike the NRL, lacks the pre-existing cultural connection to the United States that rugby league enjoys through its historical ties to the Commonwealth nations. Additionally, the AFL’s complex rules and unique playing style might pose an obstacle in attracting new fans accustomed to the faster pace and simpler rules of American sports.

Despite these challenges, the AFL’s renewed focus on expansion reflects the impact of the NRL’s American gambit. The traditional rivalry between the two codes has, in this instance, fostered a sense of healthy competition, pushing both leagues to innovate and explore new avenues for growth. Whether the AFL can replicate the NRL’s success in the US market remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the gloves are off in the battle for global sporting supremacy.

This unexpected turn of events, where a bold move by one code has spurred positive change within another, highlights the dynamic nature of the Australian sporting landscape. It remains to be seen if the AFL’s billion-dollar plan will bear fruit, but one thing is clear: the lines between competition and collaboration can blur, leading to unexpected results that benefit the sporting ecosystem as a whole.