On the eve of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, US Association of Rugby League (USARL) Chairman Peter Illfield gave Bullpen insight into the battles faced with extending the footprint of the sport in the United States and what impact could rugby league receive when the 2025 edition of the tournament ventures to North America.
Bullpen: What are some of the clear goals that the US hopes to achieve at the tournament?
Peter Illfield: “An interesting question on one part and it’s a common answer on the other. We’re looking for success, we’re looking to compete at our best and get a result that we’re comfortable with.”
BP: As the US achieved on-field success at the 2013 World Cup, you want to use on-field success to drive off-field results. What off-field benefits do you hope to achieve in 2017?
RI: “With the 2013 World Cup we had two players from the domestic competition in the US, who were heritage players out of the squad. At this World Cup, we’ve been able to introduce 12 domestic players. So that in itself speaks volumes for the ability to give back to the clubs in the US and give it a profile that will encourage other players to participate.”
BP: Is there starting to become a greater balance between US born players and expatriates living in the US?
RI: “Not at all, we’re about recruiting those who live in the US and it’s about giving everyone an opportunity to play at the highest level they possibly can, without rewarding mediocrity. You want to give both Americans, mostly Americans, an opportunity to play rugby league.”
BP: As rugby league is concentrated in the north-east of the US, what is the participation compared to rugby union?
RI: “Rugby union has some 400,000 participants in the US. They have a professional organisation with full-time employees administering and being officials and coaches in the game. Rugby league has 600.
“We have 12 teams. The USARL and its clubs are volunteer organisations and we rely on them to administer, officiate, coach and play. We’re a very small amateur organisation trying to survive and trying to increase participation levels.
“The 12 clubs we have operating at the moment are men’s teams only, one team clubs. And unfortunately, we haven’t been able to instil the efforts required to populate those teams with second grades, junior grades, women.
“But I tell you, the game in the last 20 to 30 years has not grown that much and we’ve got a lot of work to do for it to grow to an extent that’s really acceptable for full membership of the Rugby League International Federation.”
BP: With such low participation, does that mean all participants become stakeholders in the game?
RI: “Not particularly. There’s many players that just love to come along and play, do the training and play matches on the weekend.”
BP: Where does the 2025 World Cup fit into growing the game in the US?
RI: “USARL have very little to do with the 2025 RLWC. We’ll be participants just like any other country. While we’ll be participants, just hopefully we qualify again, as we are in this World Cup.”
BP: What links or benefits could USARL potentially derive from the tournament?
RI: “It will be huge, but to ensure that a legacy occurs you have to have the resources both from a human and financial perspective.
“You’ve got to have the resources to follow up and you’ve got to have the structure in place to accommodate those people who are interested. I get inquiries every week from someone that says, “I grew up with rugby league, I love the game, I want a team in my town,’ and I tell them this is what you need to do, ‘go out and find five like-minded people to help you administer and put together a strategic plan of how you’re going to recruit and how you’re going to raise funds, approach councils and governments to utilise their grounds and facilities.’
“From those inquiries, the USARL and any other organisation or national governing body needs to from an internal perspective be able to develop resources to respond to these things as well. That’s what builds a confident and sustainable organisation.
“It’s been a challenge for us to find the expertise, the resources to be able to accommodate those who have an interest in this game and to build clubs, junior development and knock on doors to get people interested.”
BP: Well-intentioned is not enough to drive and engage sponsors, work with councils, build blocs of people.
RI: “It is the biggest roadblock in every sport. Sport needs to work from both ends, from a development grassroots perspective and the top end which is the commercial side of it who have the expertise to attract large amounts of finance that can bring about a touring team in big venue, advertise and promote games and build promotion. From that perspective that’s the advantage in having a World Cup in 2025 as it will attract a lot of attention but it’s got to be handled properly.
“From 2013 as much of a success it was in the press it didn’t flow back into the country. Those guys just went home and went back to their livelihoods.”
BP: If we’re talking increased chances of professionalism, let’s look at the New York consortium who have made public an intention to have a team play in England. What are their chances of being a viable concern?
RI: “That’s a commercial entity and that all depends on how much commercial support that they can get.
“They’re trying to set up a tier three rugby league team in arguably the most expensive city in the world. And one’s got to ask oneself is that financially viable? Is that a practical way of approaching this game? It could be! If they gain enough finances to promote the game and make it of interest to the New York people and citizens and they want to go and watch rugby league then that’s fabulous.
“The importance of spectator numbers in sports today has gone out the door because television provides the greatest income. Getting rugby league on television in the US is the most critical thing and until it is promoted at reasonable hours through a reasonable network the game is going to struggle.”
BP: There is insularities in both the professional and amateur games then.
RI: “The amateur game is insular because they are unable to attract the expertise from an administrative or an official perspective to grow the game.
“I grew up in Newcastle, New South Wales in a rugby league environment and it was second nature to me to get involved in the game. After I finished playing I felt the need to share some of my experiences with younger players, so I took on coaching and referee education. When you do that in a volunteer organisation in an alien country, you’re insulated because you can only think so far.
“On the other end of the scale in the professional side, it’s about commercial gain. They need to have a product that’s commercially viable and makes a profit. There’s always going to be arguments, inadequacies and there’s also going to be success stories.”
BP: What are the pitfalls of trying to bridge the gap between professional and amateur rugby league?
RI: “One needs to be careful, you can’t just give someone some money. That’s been done far too many times and it’s backfired. To do it well, it needs to be structured, with a strategic plan in place and people have to show that they’re genuine in being able to go out and do the activities required to substantiate someone giving those funds to assist those programs.
“You also want a strategy that provides resources at a reasonable level to better understand how we can recruit and train new players, administrators and match officials so we can help have a better structure for people to be introduced to rugby league.”
BP: Can rugby league and rugby union co-exist in the United States?
RI: “Good question. At some stage, many years down the track, one may need to say its rugby and we need to get smarter and pool our resources and have one game.”
BP: Could rugby league position itself to recruit college footballers, those that don’t receive NFL contracts or Canadian Football League deals? Therefore, you position the game where it engages colleges?
BP: This is going back to the demographic question earlier.
RI: “It’s very difficult to imagine the volume of the population of the US. When you look at the high school and college systems we’re talking many millions of athletes.
“One needs to sit down and develop a strategy of introduction, how do I knock on the door and introduce myself and engage with those students who are athletes and rugby type athletes. Due to numbers, we don’t have to steal anyone from anywhere, just take the fall out, but we need to take the fallout from a strategic level. I’m sure that if you were able to provide an avenue for that athlete to experience rugby league they would want to be a part of that.”
BP: Both rugby league and union have modified versions of the game. Could that be an additional soft approach to introducing the game? Rugby Sevens has been introduced to a lot of “non-traditional” locations.
“Rugby league is a really open game with great skillsets but the spread of the game hasn’t been able to grow like rugby union.
“Whether it’s the World Cup, number of US participants in the World Cup, the tournament being held in North America or whether it’s a professional league, we’ve got to have all these things working in our favour to better accommodate and help grow the game. At the end of the day it comes down to the decision makers and those who you can attract into the game as administrators.”
Image Credit: Carolyn Ritchie