North American Expansion: Things look different this time

Ottawa

20 April 2019 - Written by Zack Wilson

Ottawa and New York look set to become new places where professional rugby league is played in the near future.

Last Thursday clubs voted at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford, League 1 and Championship clubs have voted in favour of allowing clubs from those two North American cities compete in the UK rugby league pyramid.

"The clubs were, in principle, supportive - by a comfortable majority - of the proposals for both Ottawa and New York to join the competitions," RFL senior non-executive director Simon Johnson told reporters, according to Rugby League Long Reads.

"And they asked the RFL board to continue to exercise its discretion."

There is bound to be cynicism and doubt expressed about the projects in the rugby league community.

After all, we have seen this kind of thing far too often in our game.

But this time it does look a little different. There seems to have been lessons learned from the past, and these bids have a reassuring sheen of North American professionalism about them.

They certainly have plenty of finance behind them.

New York has two major investors backing the project, and also has sponsorship in place from heavy-hitters like Virgin Atlantic, Mastercard, Hilton and possibly ESPN.

Ottawa have 15 investors, including one other individual, apart from Eric Perez, who has been involved with Toronto Wolfpack.

How this unfolds in the long term will be interesting to see.

We could be building towards a situation that some mentioned as a possibility a few years back, where rugby league is split into Atlantic and Pacific competitions.

The Atlantic region will include Europe and eastern North America, and possibly northern and western Africa, with the Pacific focusing on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

The Pacific region could conceivably include a presence in Chile, as well as the west coast of Canada and the USA.

That structure could ultimately help our sport to develop a truly international presence, but it is a very long way off yet.

It was interesting to read that the Ottawa project sees competing in international competitions as the way to develop the sport, while the team behind the New York bid see their ultimate aim as being to promote the United States domestic competition.

Super League clubs were permitted to attend the meeting but did not vote.

They have imposed their own additional criteria on the two bids, with them favouring a cap of 25% of Super League to consist of overseas clubs.

The Super League clubs represented at the meeting were Catalans Dragons, Hull Kingston Rovers, Leeds Rhinos, Salford Red Devils and Warrington Wolves.

The somewhat atavistic views of a certain section of the traditional rugby league community were also expressed at the meeting, with one UK club suggesting that the New York club be forced to field a certain number of domestic players.

How that would work remains to be seen, though it would surely depend on whether they started their journey in the Championship or in League 1.

League 1 is a competition which would allow the development of North American players; the Championship is a little less forgiving.

But even so, as West Wales Raiders showed last season, simply playing local players is not enough – they need to be good enough too.

So we seem on the cusp of a new era for rugby league in Britain and Europe, with North America set to join the party in a significant way.

Let’s try not to mess it up this time.

Both the Ottawa and New York projects seem to have good money behind them, with big sponsors in place.

If that is a sign of the finance that they can attract in the future, then this could be a very important point in rugby league’s international journey.

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