Will the US rugby league reach the standards of UK’s rugby league?

Embed from Getty Images

Rugby is a popular sport all over the world, and enthusiasm for it is growing. There are now a number of international competitions for both men's and women's teams which pitch rugby-loving nations against each other. These include the Rugby World Cup and the Six Nations Championship - which was the Five Nations until 1999 when Italy joined.

In some countries like Wales and New Zealand, rugby is the dominant national sport, while others like England enjoy it alongside other national favourites like football and cricket. But that doesn't mean English rugby fans are any less passionate than their counterparts, and in fact it's the English Rugby team which are the current champions.

United States and The NFL

But one country where rugby hasn't really taken hold is the United States. Considering that American Football grew from rugby, it might seem strange that they haven't embraced the original sport as well. But given how popular the NFL is and rugby's relative obscurity in the States, it's understandable how people might see rugby as a watered-down version of their national sport - when in fact it is played at a higher tempo and involves just as much physical contact.

The NFL is arguably the most popular sport in the world, having in the highest revenue and global viewing figures than even European football. The passion with which people support their teams is fierce and unrivalled, and so convincing them to try and follow a new sport is a difficult task. But it's one which the MLR - Major League Rugby - has decided is worth taking on.

The beginning of the MLR

Discussions began in 2016 between a handful of amateur rugby clubs, with the intention of forming a professional league. The MLR officially played its first game in 2018 and had a membership of seven clubs from all over the country. Membership grew every year, and for the upcoming 2021 season there are thirteen clubs signed up to take part, including two newcomers, the Dallas Jackals and LA Giltinis. Like the NFL, teams are split into two conferences, with the top three teams from each conference taking part in the post-season championship competition.

MLR vs Rugby League

So how does the MLR compare to more established leagues, like the Rugby League in the UK? The rules and plays are the same, but the main difference that shows is the difference in experience between the two. Even the most experienced MLR teams are only two seasons into their ‘professional' era, and it shows, but not necessarily in a bad way. When teams are a little scrappy it can give rise to exciting moments that you wouldn't see if, for example, the defence were 100% on top of their opponents.

Rugby has been an established, professional sport in the UK for well over 100 years. Team styles have evolved with players and coaches, into what you see today, and as such they will rarely stray from comfortable strategies and well-rehearsed tactics. The MLR doesn't have that history yet, and so essentially, anything goes. Teams are still finding out what works for them and are willing to try more out-there ideas which can lead to some really exciting matches.

MLR is seeing an influx of foreign players, with international rugby stars from New Zealand, South Africa and France all signing to play for American teams. These professionals bring top-level experience to the fledgeling league and will help to shape its expansion and growth in the same way that MLS benefited from signing former European internationals like David Beckham.

As far as popularity goes, MLR has a long way to catch up to its counterpart across the pond. Rugby Union is the second most popular sport in the UK (Rugby League is less popular, and its following is on the decline), with only football being enjoyed by more people. However, in America, MLR is much further down the ladder - as is to be expected for a sport about to begin only the third year of its professional league. MLR bosses are hoping to follow in the footsteps of MLS's rapid rise, and so far, things are looking good.

Rugby and Sports Betting

One unexpected benefactor which could have a positive effect on MLR's growth is the newly introduced legalisation of individual states being able to legalise online sports betting. The new act passed in 2018 has seen a number of states including Tennessee legalise online sports betting so citizens can place a bet on different sporting events like the MLR.

For many, from both the UK and America, placing a bet on a game is part of the fun. American's are more likely to bet on their team, as a way of showing their support, whereas UK bettors will bet on the outcomes of neutral matches, often driven by the thought of large pay-outs from an accumulator. With the MLR season about to begin and the teams' strengths and weaknesses still in flux, predicting winners isn't as straightforward for the bookmakers, and so there are probably some great steals to be made.

Like sports betting, rugby is rapidly taking off in America. The initial group of hardcore fans have been loyal and active enough to sustain the newly created league, and this has helped it to reach new people. While rugby doesn't have the stature of American Football, and probably never will, it has the potential to develop a decent following. Although underdogs, the USA rugby team do participate in the World Cup, and this added international flavour should be enough to boost the sport's following.