New $1m union comp carries Rugby Football League name

James Gordon
World RFL

The RFL had a brief foray in to North America with Toronto Wolfpack and the ill-fated Denver test match.

Now a so-called World Rugby Football League is launching a cash-rich Rugby (union) Sevens competition in New Jersey.

The NYC Sevens will have a $1m prize money pool, which they are dubbing the sport’s ‘richest-ever prize pool’.

It has been sanctioned by USA Rugby and will be held at the Red Bull Arena, home of the Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls.

According to their website, the World RFL was “founded to establish America’s first professional major rugby sevens league, delivering avid and casual fans an exciting, world-class live sports event and media experience.

“Through collaboration with USA Rugby, The World RFL is committed to developing the league’s six-year growth into the top sixteen U.S. media markets, producing and distributing a range of sports, entertainment and gaming content, marketing initiatives, and grassroots programs aimed at educating and exciting America and the world’s rugby fans and players.”

As well as the big cash prize, the event has announced a streaming deal with ESPN+ with New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and France among the nations expected to compete.

World RFL’s executive producer Sean Verity said that they are aiming to present rugby sevens “in the most dynamic way possible across the modern landscape of live and televised sports.”

World RFL founder William Tatham added: “I am committed to making The World RFL the next major U.S. league and the first new American professional sports league in 50 years to truly prosper.”

It may be a coincidence, but it is hard not to be at least a little bit taken aback by the use of the name and its logo, which are of course completely unconnected with the RFL we know and love (ahem).

A legal challenge to the competition could prove costly for the RFL, at a time when they are gripped with the ongoing case being brought by former players of the sport regarding head injuries and the impacts of concussion.

A source said it’s been judged there’s no need to embark on anything at this stage, with priorities rightly being taken up elsewhere, but it would be different if it was closer to home and directly impacted the RFL.

An application to trademark ‘RFL’ and ‘Rugby Football League’ was made by the World RFL body back in February. However, it’s not the first time applications have been made around similar terms, with previous trademark attempts either abandoned or refused.

Rugby league in the USA

Meanwhile, the sport of rugby league remains gripped in political wrangles in the USA, with multiple governing bodies trying to fight to gain control of the sport.

A North American Rugby League competition was announced in 2021, featuring Toronto Wolfpack, but failed to materialise.

In recent months, the governance of rugby league in USA has been reviewed and reformed under the International Rugby League federation’s guidance.

The opportunity for professional rugby league across the Atlantic came via Toronto Wolfpack’s application to join the RFL league system ahead of the 2017 season. Ultimately, that was funded by private businessmen associated with Toronto, rather than being part of a concerted strategy to grow the sport in North America.

The RFL, as the governing body of the sport in the UK, have enough on their plate – and so it proved, with Toronto’s demise being partly caused by the COVID pandemic and finally booted out following a vote of then-fellow Super League clubs.

By that time, there had already been discussions about a New York rugby league team following in the footsteps of Toronto, and but for the pandemic, a similar project in Ottawa may have moved forward.

As it was, the increasing costs associated with travel and the logistics of having Trans-Atlantic teams has made that vision virtually impossible to replicate.

Amidst the growth of Toronto, and the potential that Nigel Wood was eager to draw out through meetings across the pond, the RFL did make the bold decision to take a test match for England to Denver.

They took on New Zealand at the Mile High Stadium, winning 36-18 in front of 19,320 fans.

But it left the governing body out of pocket when the promoter of the game failed to pay up, costing an estimated £500,000. The same promoter had been involved in the bidding process to secure the USA hosting rights for the 2025 World Cup, which was taken off them in December 2018 and has since been awarded to France.

The Rugby (Union) World Cup is due to be held in the USA in 2031, with the women’s edition to follow in 2033. Rugby Sevens will also feature at the 2028 Olympic Games, to be hosted in Los Angeles.

For rugby league, all it can do is sit back and see what impact the World Rugby Football League has and whether it will make things even more difficult for the 13-man code, if the in-fighting and politics ever get resolved.

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